The Curious Life and Mind-Altering Death of Justin Clark

It’s rare to become addicted to esoteric hallucinogens. But it’s not impossible.

Justin Clark in 2019. Photo:  
Justin Clark in 2019. Photo:  

In January 2021, the third season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia premiered on Vice TV with an episode titled “Synthetic Toad Venom Machine.” Part science lesson, part travelogue, each installment of the documentary series explores esoteric hallucinogens and the “psychonauts” who make and take them. “I’ve been fascinated by psychoactive drugs my whole life,” narrates Hamilton Morris, the show’s creator and host, over footage of him adjusting microscope lenses and reading a book about PCP. “I love to study their chemistry and impact on society. And my work has allowed me to investigate extraordinary substances around the world. Yet there are still mysteries that remain.”

Morris, who has been published in chemistry journals and is the son of the famed documentarian Errol Morris, examines psychotropics with a commitment to accuracy and a knack for storytelling that often involves personally ingesting substances. In one episode, viewers see him gripped by euphoria and struggling to take notes while breathing xenon gas. In another, he squats in the dark with an Argentine healer, snorting a mixture of 5-hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Fans of the show appreciate the way it calmly cuts through drug hysteria and debunks the myths of prohibition, often with molecular-level science.

If Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia presents Morris as a guide to the psychoactive frontier, then for years his indispensable scout was Justin Clark, a skinny 34-year-old from Kentucky with a toothy smile, a stick-and-poke tattoo of a bicycle on his arm, and no formal training in biology or chemistry. Clark’s title was associate producer, but his work entailed being a researcher, an editor, a sounding board, and an archivist. When the series was in production, he could be found digging into the characters involved in the murky, government-backed origins of South Africa’s illicit quaalude market; locating and deciphering academic texts like Ritual Enemas and Snuffs in the Americas; or sorting through legal documents about the decades-old arrest of an important methamphetamine chemist. “He could do things that other people couldn’t,” Morris told me. “Entire swaths of the show would not exist if it weren’t for Justin.”

The two had a layered relationship. Morris was Clark’s boss but also his friend and one of the few people who could appreciate just how much Clark had taught himself about drugs. One evening, as they were working on the show’s third season, Clark said he’d fabricated some ersatz Ritalin from scratch. “I tried a small unmeasured amount and it seems active but I’ve had some coffee so I’m not completely sure,” Clark texted Morris, along with a photo of some marbled brown oil on a digital scale. He added later, “The extract is definitely isopropylphenidate. The true test was taking it at 11pm.” Clark may have been joking, but Morris replied after midnight that he’d shared a link to a work document: “Put that irritable energy to use!”

Clark shared Morris’s views that there is no such thing as a “bad” drug and that dosage is an underappreciated concept. “If there’s one thing that is not talked about enough in the realm of psychedelics and drugs in general, it’s dose,” Morris once told the podcaster Tim Ferriss, citing a seminal 16th-century physician who taught that dosage could be “the difference between a medicine and a poison.” For years, Clark had been using increasing amounts of ketamine and its potent analogues — snorting them, putting them under his tongue, injecting them into his muscles. As Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia tended to frame things, personal responsibility and education could be a bulwark between exploring the expanses of reality and losing control.

The show’s popularity — its YouTube videos have been viewed tens of millions of times — is part of a generational shift in how Americans think about the risks and benefits of psychoactive substances. Thanks in part to new federal approvals, psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine have shown promise in treating severe depression, addiction, and PTSD. These clinical findings are dovetailing with cultural shifts, as awareness of the explicit racism behind anti-drug policies — and the mass incarceration they generated — has spurred reforms and made prohibitionist stances politically untenable in many parts of the country. It’s now common to hear that we’re living in a “psychedelic renaissance.”

If that’s true, the psychedelic industrial revolution is not far ahead. Investors have put hundreds of millions of dollars into companies that aim to develop their own psychedelic treatments and capitalize on the 40 to 60 percent of people who don’t feel better on traditional antidepressants. Companies like Mindbloom appear in Instagram feeds to advertise $1,189 ketamine treatments. Resorts in Mexico and Jamaica offer “all-inclusive” experiences with mushrooms or ayahuasca. Anyone who missed Michael Pollan’s best-selling 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, can catch it soon on Netflix, where it is reportedly being adapted into a four-part series.

Unsettlingly, this scientific, cultural, and capitalistic embrace has coincided with a surge in drug-related deaths. More than 100,000 people died of overdoses in the U.S. in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an annual increase of nearly 30 percent and part of a record-breaking trend that began before the pandemic. The vast majority involved opioids. Psychedelics, taken by themselves, rarely result in death — a fact that Clark liked to bring up to friends and family members when they expressed concern about his use.

If you’re interested in learning more about the potential dangers of psychedelics, part two of Cover StoryNew York’s podcast exposing the dark secrets of psychedelic therapy, starts March 1. Listen to the trailer below.

Clark, though, occasionally mixed them with other drugs. In June, his roommate found him on the floor of their Bed-Stuy apartment and called 911. He had been lying there for days, after what appeared to be an accidental overdose. Months of testing went by before the New York City medical examiner determined recently that his heart gave out from a fatal combination of ketamine, oxycodone, and 3 HO-PCP, a bespoke hallucinogen.

Clark’s death shook many of his friends, not despite his open use of illicit drugs but because of it: Few people they knew were better equipped to understand the effects of such obscure substances. Some were quick to make an ugly accusation: that Clark’s years at Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia encouraged his drug use and led, directly or indirectly, to his death. “I am now more aware than ever of the way a tragic death can turn into a finger pointing nightmare,” Morris wrote in a post on his Patreon account a few weeks after the overdose.

The objects of Clark’s fascination killed him, and his expertise may have given him an illusion of control — that much is true. But blaming his occupation for his demise is at best simplistic, and it denies an unconventionally brilliant person his agency. More to the point, I don’t think Clark would have wanted us to misunderstand what happened to him. As his research helped give the lie to war-on-drugs fables, so the circumstances of his death resist easy moralizing.

Clark in May 2021, two weeks before his death. Photo: Christian Hansen

Justin Clark grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father, Michael, was a contractor for a flooring company and his mother, Leslie, cleaned houses. By the second grade, he was reading at an eighth-grade level, and he could pick up an instrument and play it by ear. Michael recalls bringing Justin to work and asking him to lay studs for the entire basement of a house. His drywall crew was impressed. “They told me you need to get him to do it every time because he didn’t mess it up at all,” Michael says. Justin was 9 years old.

When Justin was in middle school, his parents split up. “We were into alcohol and drugs, and we just weren’t there for them emotionally, and I think it really had an impact,” Leslie says of Justin and his two siblings. “Huge effect.” (She has been sober since 2016.)

In high school, Justin fell in with an older crowd of photographers and performance artists. Justin had blond hair, big bushy eyebrows, and impossibly high, razor-sharp cheekbones. He looked like a skateboarding James Dean and was fashion conscious in a way that most male teenagers in Kentucky were not. He could be shy and serious, but he had an explosive laugh and a sharp, strange sense of humor. His sister, Katie, remembered how a plumbing ad on the side of the highway could prompt a rant about anthropomorphism: “I hate that stuff! I hate things with faces on them that aren’t people.”

After getting a degree in anthropology from the University of Louisville, Clark moved around a lot. He lived in Paris, stocking books at Shakespeare and Company and sleeping on the shop floor, and he spent time in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles doing mostly manual labor and construction. “It became like an inside joke,” his friend Ilia Ovechkin told me. “He’d just move somewhere, then in a month he would say, ‘Oh, this place sucks.’”

These quests would always be broken up with time in Louisville, where he once got a temporary job sorting and archiving the work of Grady Clay, a pioneering urbanist then in his 90s. Archiving encouraged Clark’s obsessive tendencies, and he built a collection of books bordering on a small library. He’d memorize poems like Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” (which begins: “I work all day, and get half drunk at night”), recite them for friends, then never mention them again. For several years, he would make himself a frittata every day, something his friends never let him live down. (“He hated hearing about the frittata thing,” his brother, Julian, says.) Clark could be endearingly old-fashioned and took great care in maintaining his relationships, even failed romantic ones. He insisted on spending every Christmas at his grandparents’ house.

Clark was still underemployed when he read a 2013 story in Harper’s that Hamilton Morris wrote about the unsolved murder of a celebrated mycologist. He saw that Morris had a regular Vice column and a web video series about psychoactive drugs. Clark wrote an email to Hamilton praising the article and offered his services as a researcher. “He was building bookshelves or cabinets for someone, and they wouldn’t pay him. And so I said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll pay you — let’s work together,’” Morris says. “Our entire relationship started because Justin was basically incapable of securing any kind of steady employment.”

To keep up with Morris, Clark had to immerse himself in pharmacology, even if it meant reading, literally, Organic Chemistry for Dummies. (His book collection expanded to foundational texts on psychedelics, and eventually he acquired so many that he stored them in his father’s basement.) Clark was living in Ridgewood with a rotating group of friends, including Becca Brooks Morrin, who met him in high school. “I would come home from work or from being out in New York somewhere, and he would be chain-smoking cigarettes, sitting and reading at his table with everything immaculately positioned,” Morrin says. “He would just talk to me about what he was reading or studying. And it was like going to a class and having an adjunct professor explain some kind of weird subject matter.”

Hamilton Morris. Photo: VICE TV

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia typically follows an hour-long, six-act structure, with the best episodes unraveling a mystery or challenging viewers’ misconceptions about drugs. In “A Positive PCP Story,” which ran in November 2016, Morris interviews people who take phencyclidine for therapeutic or artistic reasons and persuasively debunks the myth that it imbues users with superhuman strength and blind rage. Another episode begins with an informed debate over whether Central African cattle herders are feeding their stock synthetic opioids or whether the chemicals are found within native vegetation; it leads into an Indigenous iboga ceremony for people trying to cure their addictions and ends by making a larger point about the Anthropocene.

Last year, Clark described for a friend how he and Morris worked together. “I would be like, ‘Hamilton, what’s the next episode going to be about?’” Clark told the friend. “And I would turn on my voice notes and Hamilton would go on this long spiel, like a daydream, of the episode he wanted to make. And then it would be my job to come as close to that in reality as possible.”

The show was a success with viewers and with Vice’s management. “They were very happy. They wanted us to come back and make more and more,” says Danilo Parra, a cinematographer. He worked with Morris on the original web version of the show, when it was just the two of them and a field producer, and he continued after Vice green-lit the series for its new cable network in 2016. That helped the crew grow to include another camera operator, a sound engineer, and other producers, including Clark. The group typically had around ten months to produce an entire season, and the deadlines were unforgiving. Morris’s team had an autonomy that not many others producing shows for Vice did; Parra describes it as a “small company within a company” with an especially close-knit staff. “We’re like friends making the show.”

In many episodes, one of the most impressive feats is a montage in which Morris shares the recipe for a given substance — methamphetamine, say, or 5-MEO-DMT — and narrates the complex chemical synthesis, his deep voice maintaining perfect elocution through eight-syllable words. “Things had to be very accurate,” Parra says. “Justin really helped to make things much more bulletproof.”

The team prided itself on its clearheadness, especially in contrast to some other Vice productions, which were notoriously hedonistic. (A Vice spokesperson says of Clark, “We were never made aware of any issues or problems during his time working with the business.”) Morris, who does not drink alcohol, points out that the supervising producer on the show has never used a hallucinogen. “None of us felt like we needed to do drugs to understand the stories we told,” Parra says. “We just needed to tell the stories we told as best as possible through the people that told them, and sometimes it was Hamilton.”

In the months after an episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia featured ketamine in December 2017, Clark started telling his friends and family that he was using the drug to treat his depression. He had seen the occasional psychiatrist to get Adderall or Ritalin and had been prescribed antidepressants in the past, he said, but ketamine worked for him.

When most people think about psychedelics — or mind-manifesting or entheogenic drugs — they’re thinking of the “classic psychedelics”: LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, or 5-MeO-DMT, the stuff found in Sonoran Desert toads. The substances don’t really have a fatal dosage amount and are not usually addictive, and some of them have been used by humans for thousands of years. Ketamine is more contemporary. It was invented in the 1960s as a substitute for PCP, which had too many negative side effects to be the novel anesthetic its creators hoped it would be.

Ketamine is known as a “dissociative anesthetic,” a term coined by Antoinette Domino, the wife of the neuropharmacologist who first administered ketamine to humans — detainees in a Michigan prison. At lower doses, there’s an ethereal, out-of-body feeling, a pleasant discombobulation. Higher doses can result in the sort of “ego death” that often precipitates a memorable and deeply moving experience — or the scary, temporary semi-paralysis of what is known as a K-hole. Ketamine’s variability has led to the misconception that it’s chiefly a horse tranquilizer, but plenty of children and adults are given the drug by doctors. It’s one of the world’s most popular anesthetics because it is cheap and exceedingly safe. Unlike some other anesthetics, it does not significantly slow a patient’s breathing or heart rate, and fatal overdoses are extremely rare.

While ketamine’s abuse potential is low, it’s still significant. John Lilly, a brilliant physician and the inventor of the sensory-deprivation tank, took prodigious amounts of ketamine and other psychedelics in his mission to discover new forms of consciousness. He came to believe he was visiting from a thousand years in the future and was put under psychiatric evaluation after trying to warn President Gerald Ford that solid-state electronics were an alien conspiracy.

Recently, ketamine has been prescribed to treat people suffering from severe depression. It can work especially well with those who are suicidal, since it takes minutes, not weeks, to kick in. In 2019, the FDA approved a low-dose ketamine nasal spray to be taken with other antidepressants. But insurance companies usually won’t pay for it, and full FDA approval is years away. For now, a robust ketamine-therapy treatment plan can cost thousands of dollars, or you can pay $400 for a one-time IV infusion at one of the hundreds of bare-bones clinics that have opened nationwide. As long as we live in a country that criminalizes psychedelics and maintains a profit-driven health-care system, access will remain with those who can afford it — and those who can’t may seek it out in other ways.

Clark’s father was bothered when he learned his son was dosing himself with ketamine. “I told him that I would take him to any doctor in the world, pay for the doctor, pay for medicine, whatever they prescribe, but I didn’t want him to self-medicate,” Michael says. “Because that’s what I had done all my life.” He started using drugs in his early teens. At 42, the family staged an intervention; Justin, then 20, was scheduled to read something. But when Michael walked in, he agreed to get treatment immediately. Today, he has been sober for 15 years.

Silk Worm (her legal name) met Clark in San Francisco in the spring of 2019. She liked that he put “horticulturalist” on his Tinder profile, and they wound up dating for six months. One of Worm’s friends referred to Clark as “Downton Abbey” because he looked and behaved like a dreamy English prince. “He was really, really good at making you see really good things about yourself,” she says.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia was on hiatus between seasons, and Clark had moved to San Francisco to try to become a municipal gardener, like his friend and then-roommate Parke Lewis-Deweese. “New beginnings would make him feel vitalized,” Lewis-Deweese says. “He liked floating through life, making little cameos in people’s lives.” But Clark didn’t put in the necessary effort and was only able to secure a low-paying job at a nursery. By this time, he was taking dissociatives regularly. Clark sometimes acted strangely — slurring his speech, laughing in a strange way, forgetting simple things. Sometimes his muscles would lock up and he’d be frozen in place.

Clark had come to prefer ketamine’s gray-market cousins, which are cheaper and more potent. Made in labs across the world, these dissociative anesthetics are dubiously known as “research chemicals” (RCs). They may have similar effects to ketamine or PCP or different personalities altogether. New ones are created constantly and can be bought online. While it might take 100 milligrams of ketamine to fall into a K-hole, users can experience that same intensity with just 15 milligrams of a molecule like 3-HO-PCP, which can cost only $70 a gram. Like “spice” or “bath salts,” they are vivid examples of the futility of drug criminalization. Governments worldwide play a continuous game of Whac-a-Mole; when one RC is banned, another minutely different one pops up in its place. Subreddits full of “dissonauts” debate dosing techniques and reminisce about their favorite now-impossible-to-find RCs.

Matthew Johnson, a psychologist and addiction expert in the Johns Hopkins department of psychiatry who is known for his research with psychedelics, likens ketamine and its analogues to “psychedelic heroin” — harmless-seeming but potentially habit-forming. “It has that psychedelic aspect, but it has that kind of lure — you just want to stay in that reality,” he says. “Why come back to normal reality?”

When Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia resumed production for season three in the summer of 2019, Clark prepared to return to New York. Worm and Clark parted on good terms, but she says that his substance use and mental health were a major factor in their breakup. “I think that a lot of people in his life who were maybe worried for him set boundaries without necessarily asking him to change his behavior. And I fell into that category as well,” Worm says. “Knowing what I know now, obviously, I think I would act differently. But that was the strategy I had at my disposal.”

Clark could thrive in a high-stress environment, but the pandemic hit him hard. His friends didn’t want to cook with him or spend any time indoors. Clark took long bike rides and taught his friend Jo Livingstone how to skate in Brower Park. Livingstone, who bonded with Clark years ago over their shared fascination with a famous 15th-century manuscript written in indecipherable code, remembers him being at his breaking point in the summer of 2020. Clark was feeling overwhelmed with having to do too much for Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia but did not want to lose a connection to work he genuinely loved.

“He’s crying on my stoop, and he says, like, ‘I think something bad is gonna happen to me if I don’t get away from this job,’” Livingstone says. “And so I have to kind of live with the memory of that.” In late August, with season three nearly wrapped, Clark quit. He had been flaking on assignments and going incommunicado for hours. He sent a lengthy text to Morris apologizing for his erratic behavior and said he was moving back to Kentucky to be with a girlfriend from high school.

“I have not become a ‘worthless shell of a human being’ or retreated into alcoholism or dissociative addiction or moved back in with my parents,” Clark wrote Morris. (It’s unclear what he was quoting.) “I love you and I have so much respect for the work that you do. I still believe that I’m your biggest fan.”

Morris replied, “I recognize the things I said were harsh and insulting, but I stand by them. I think you’d be better off confronting the pain and complexity of life than running from it.”

When Clark returned to Kentucky, his brother and a handful of friends staged an intervention. In the middle of the session, a friend of Clark’s since high school, Matilda Gertrude Paulin, noticed that he was on dissociatives. “He had been using for so many years, on a semi-daily basis, that even as one of his oldest friends, I was starting to lose my grasp of what was Justin and what was Justin on ketamine,” Paulin says. She planned a road trip with Clark to her home in Los Angeles, hoping to get him out of his routine and into a better mental state. Clark’s insurance had lapsed, and other friends urged him to sign up for Medicaid, to find a therapist, to get help. They sent him links to jobs, but he never applied.

After season three of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia started airing in early 2021, Becca Brooks Morrin saw a member of the crew promoting the show on Instagram. She messaged him, “Dude my friend Justin is addicted to taking ketamine now because of this show. Lol and he’s broke because the show paid him so badly.” The crew member sent the DM to Morris, who sent it to Clark, who called Morrin immediately.

Clark hadn’t totally broken with Morris — he was still editing podcasts for his Patreon page — and Morrin recalls that he was “super-upset.” She says Clark said, “I have a really complicated relationship with Hamilton, and it’s already sort of on ice at this point. He’s, like, how I’m making money. He’s my employer, you know, and I don’t want to fuck that up.”

Things got worse during the two months Clark spent in Los Angeles with Paulin. He overdosed on a date and was hospitalized several times. “Justin wanted to be a part of this movement of sorts, right?” Paulin says. “Decriminalize these drugs. But he also carried this deep shame and secretive nature about [his use], even with his closest friends and relatives.”

When confronted, Clark would say that he needed dissociatives both to work and to live without depression, and he’d repeat the fact that fatal dissociative overdoses were exceedingly uncommon. “It actually worked on me in some ways, because I would kind of tell myself that. Like, ‘Well, he says he can’t die,’” Paulin says. One day, she gave Clark an ultimatum: Flush the drugs and stay with her family in their one-bedroom apartment, or take the drugs with him and leave. Clark left.

He moved back east in March. To pay rent, he kept editing podcasts and took a job at Fanelli Cafe in Soho. Clark was having a hard time finding his preferred dissociatives, and he started texting with a Kentucky friend, who began to send extras from their stash. After receiving a “care package” in April, he wrote a thank-you note: “Always a little short on supply of the medicine that keeps me sane. This could potentially save my life.” The friend sent amounts they thought would last a month; Clark used them in a week.

Morris says Clark was secretive and evasive; he’d sound strange or incoherent on a phone call or would drop off the map for a day or two, then apologize and claim that he had been drunk. Still, Morris says that over the years he never fired Clark because he thought it would do him more harm than good and because he was, on balance, indispensable to Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. “He was always very inconsistent. He was always good enough that it was impossible to replace him but bad enough that I would have wanted to replace him if he were replaceable,” Morris says.

In the spring of 2021, after Morris’s Patreon project garnered more subscribers, Clark demanded more money and a larger role as a full-time assistant. Morris replied, “Based on how much time you waste complaining, being troublingly fucked up, and asking me for things and how little competence is displayed in these edits, I am leaning toward not working with you at all as opposed to giving you a raise. If you were my full-time assistant, you would doubtlessly get ‘suicidally depressed’ or injure yourself skateboarding or relapse on some dumb addiction or delude yourself into a false romance or pick any number of dumb things from a hat of ways not to live a productive life. So no.”

“Your words are cruel,” Clark typed back.

Morris wrote, “I know, I would have made them a little less harsh, I hit send accidentally. You have to reestablish trust and then I will offer these things … I want to work with you and help you, but you need to show stability and care.”

Morris says he rejects the idea that Clark was “some sad slave,” and that it is reductive and ridiculous to blame him or the show for Clark’s substance abuse. “No, he took pride in these things, and his work was good,” Morris says. He insists that he was consumed with Clark’s well-being. “My whole life was dominated by Justin’s dysfunction. It was like every conversation I had was, ‘How do I help Justin? What can we do about Justin? Do we need to take him to AA? Can we find him a therapist that he’ll actually see?’”

Even so, Morris intended to keep up the professional relationship. “I put up with an enormous amount of dysfunction … because I loved him as a friend and because I felt very loyal to him,” Morris says. The last text he sent Clark was “What’s your current work schedule?” It was June 5, the day after his fatal overdose.

In September, Compass Pathways, a U.K.-based pharmaceutical company focused on developing psychedelics for treatment, announced it had hired Morris as a full-time consultant to advise on novel drugs at a research lab in Philadelphia. Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is over. “In the past, if somebody had said, ‘I tried ketamine and it was the greatest antidepressant I ever used and now I don’t want to kill myself anymore,’ I would have said, ‘That’s wonderful to hear, that’s fantastic, I’m so happy that you feel better,” Morris says. “And now I can’t hear that without this tinge of fear that that is the beginning of something that will destroy them.”

Morris was not invited to the memorial that Clark’s friends and family held for him in September at a farm in Kentucky, where people took to a stage to sing songs and tell stories. Leslie Clark had a simple message for her son’s friends. “I do believe that something good can come out of this and I think that is Pay attention to people,” she said. “I think Justin put on a face sometimes. And I just hope you guys will recognize when someone, I guess, is not being themselves and get them to talk to you and open up.”

Michael Clark is still deciding what to do with his son’s library, which remains in his basement. It feels a little strange for someone who has been in Narcotics Anonymous for 15 years to possess hundreds of books about drugs. Before Clark died, Michael was going to get rid of them. Now he says he can’t. “Maybe,” he says, “I should just read every one of them.”

The Curious Life and Mind-Altering Death of Justin Clark