Hamilton Morris — one of the world’s most renowned drug journalists — has been hired as a full-time consultant for COMPASS Pathways, a publicly traded corporation focused on medicalizing psilocybin.

According to COMPASS Pathways Chief Communications Director, Tracy Cheung, Morris will be advising the company on research related to new psychedelic compounds that could be developed into therapies. He will also carry out chemistry research at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia with the COMPASS Discovery Center team there, which is led by Dr. Jason Wallach. 

The Discovery Center was started by COMPASS in 2020 and consists of a network of labs across the United States working to develop innovative therapeutic approaches for neuropsychiatric indications, according to Wallach. 

Morris, a graduate of The New School in New York City who studied anthropology and chemistry, said: “For over a decade, Jason and I have worked together studying the chemistry and pharmacology of psychedelics. Working with the COMPASS team will allow us to make strides in developing novel psychedelics that could have tremendous medical and scientific value.”

In 2016, COMPASS Pathways quietly switched from a nonprofit entity to a for-profit entity, and has since received criticism from researchers, patent examiners, and the broader community of psychedelic users. More recently — in March 2021 — David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Soaps, “sounded the alarm” on “COMPASS’s interference with Oregon’s psilocybin therapy program.” Additionally, the legitimacy of COMPASS’s patents has been challenged by Freedom to Operate Inc. (FTO), a nonprofit founded by Carey Turnbull—a board member of Usona Institute, President of the Heffter Research Institute, and CEO of Ceruvia Lifesciences. Following a number of FTO challenges, a patent examiner at the UK Intellectual Property Office released an opinion stating that multiple patent claims filed by COMPASS were not inventive or novel, based on prior art

COMPASS Pathways’ CEO and founder, George Goldsmith, has a professional history of facilitating corporate networking and “cozy relationships” with regulators across industries (from resource extraction to military contractors). COMPASS recently announced its participation at Citi, Morgan Stanley, and HC Wainwright investor conferences — notable because Goldsmith previously helped rehabilitate the images of financial institutions at his previous company, Tapestry Networks, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

In 2018, Morris expressed some of his reluctance to cast judgement on the company in a discussion with Cambridge House International. Cambridge House is a company which specializes in resource investment conferences and assisting in raising capital for the junior mineral exploration industry — a risk-tolerant sector which took an early interest in psychedelic pharmaceutical investments. 

During this conversation, Morris admitted that there was a lot of controversy around “a company called COMPASS Pathways that is associated with Peter Thiel. And a lot of people in the psychedelic community are afraid that this represents the first step in a sort of corporate commodification of the psychedelic experience.” He said that he was reluctant to weigh in about the subject because he had had a lot of “difficulty finding concrete information on what COMPASS Pathways is doing.”

Morris acknowledged that there are questions of fairness that were worth addressing around corporate entities entering the psychedelic space. But he also noted that he believes corporate interest could serve the public’s benefit. 

 “I think there are a lot of people in the cannabis world who felt that they had sacrificed their freedom — people who had gone to prison, people who were activists, people who dedicated their lives to the plant — and then they felt that these newcomers, these business people, came and reaped all the benefits of their hard work,” Morris said. “But the flipside is that that sort of white-collar corporate interest, I think, had a really important role in pushing cannabis toward legalization. So there’s a push and pull there that’s important to recognize and which makes me somewhat reluctant to outright dismiss companies like COMPASS Pathways because who’s to say that that isn’t what ultimately pushes things toward the direction of legality and that would have a positive impact on everyone.”

Morris concluded his thoughts about COMPASS Pathways by saying that he was cautiously optimistic about the way things were heading and hopes “that everyone behaves responsibly and…that COMPASS Pathways doesn’t turn out to be the malevolent corporate entity that some people in the psychedelic community seem to think that they are.”

Beyond joining a controversial company, Morris’ hiring as a full-time consultant for COMPASS Pathways presents potential conflicts of interest between Morris’ journalistic career and his corporate consulting career. 

Beginning as a monthly column for Vice Magazine in 2009 and evolving into a documentary film series, Morris’ “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” series has become one of the most popular journalistic endeavors covering psychedelic drugs and culture. Many of his fans see Morris as one of the most trusted voices in the media when it comes to psychedelic substances. 

During an interview with “Mind and Matter” podcast, Morris indicated that — while chemistry is his current focus — he plans to continue to write, podcast, and potentially make more films in the future. In journalism, questions about conflicts of interest arise when a journalist is paid by a corporation or individual in an industry they are covering.

For example, columnist David Brooks was critiqued for using his New York Times column to promote his Facebook-funded Aspen Institute project — Weave — without disclosing his financial ties, and proceeding to write corporate blog posts for Facebook. And sports reporter Karen Crouse was recently suspended from the New York Times for writing glowing columns about Michael Phelps without disclosing that she is co-authoring a book with the swimmer. One doesn’t need to look far for other instances of this behavior among journalists.

Journalist Tim Schwab, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, notes that “the Society of Professional Journalists — and most newsrooms — have codes of ethics that instruct journalists, in the first place to avoid conflicts of interest. Disclosure [of financial ties] is a last resort, if conflicts are absolutely unavoidable.”

Psymposia asked Morris — who, alongside being a full-time consultant for COMPASS Pathways, is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the company Mind Cure Health — how he plans to navigate future conflicts of interest between his corporate consulting job and his journalistic endeavors. 

Morris has not responded to Psymposia’s requests for comment on this matter or regarding critiques of COMPASS Pathways and their patents as of publication. However, Morris did discuss his future with Vice on “Mind and Matter”, stating that he will not be working with the company on a fourth season of “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia.” A source from Vice also informed Psymposia that they understood that Morris would no longer be working with Vice after season three of the show. 

On “Mind and Matter,” Morris said: “People will say, ‘Why are you with that dumpster fire company Vice?’ Well, it’s expensive to make documentaries…I will take money to make these projects from whoever will give it to me.” Morris said he would not be making another season of his show following season three, citing extremely long hours, lack of support from Vice, and four months of unpaid work during the pandemic. 

When asked by podcast host Nick Jikomes if he had a project that he was working on next, Morris said that he planned to work full time as a chemist for the foreseeable future.

“I think the plan is now to just do full time chemistry for a while,” Morris said. “For years I’ve worked with this brilliant chemist, Jason Wallach, at the University of the Science in Philadelphia and in recent years there has been a lot of interest in the psychedelic sphere and there’s a lot of funding that has emerged….We have funding to do some really cool work…Chemistry was, like, a thing I did on the weekends and that was great and it was a nice kind of side project in my life. But I would love to spend more time just doing chemistry. I won’t stop, you know, podcasts and writing and things like that. But unless there’s a… different network [that] offers a really miraculous sum of money to do something, I think I’m probably going to be taking a break from that and maybe I’ll try to make a movie at some point in the future.”

For now, it looks like Morris will retire his camera and film crew for beakers and burners, helping expand COMPASS’s ballooning patent portfolio.

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