illustration of people with pipe smoking toads floating
Artwork by Alice Hoffmann for DoubleBlind Issue No. 9

How the Sonoran Desert Toad Became an Obsession of Mainstream Psychedelia

Inside a decades-long journey to uncover the sacramental origins of the Bufo alvarius toad—and the powerful psychedelic derived from it

DoubleBlind Mag

Article by Wade Davis
Published on
Updated November 30, 2023

The story began innocently enough in Haiti in the spring of 1982, in the temple of a Vodoun sorcerer as he and a companion gathered materials for a poison reputedly used by the secret societies to create zombies, the living dead. At the time, I was a graduate student at the Harvard Botanical Museum, working under the legendary ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes had sent me to Haiti to secure the formula of the zombie powder, document its preparation, and collect samples of the various ingredients. I had entered the sorcerer’s compound on a cool and clear morning, to find hanging from a clothesline a macabre assortment of dried animals and plants, all components of the poison. Among them was the flattened carcass of an enormous toad. From size alone, I suspected it to be Bufo marinus, a native of the American tropics, quite common and certainly poisonous.

Ten inches across and weighing as much as seven pounds, Bufo marinus is the world’s largest toad, a strange, toothless creature incapable of breathing when its mouth is open, and noted for the peculiar habit of shedding and swallowing its own skin. On the back of its head are large parotoid glands that secrete highly toxic chemicals. Just to touch the glands is to risk nausea, severe headache, and violent retching. To consume the venom is to court death. Formidable animals, they seemed a highly appropriate ingredient for a folk preparation said to be capable of causing the living to appear dead, and the dead to be reborn in the realm of the living.On Easter Sunday 1982, I passed through U.S. Immigration at Kennedy Airport in New York, carrying a kaleidoscopic Haitian suitcase constructed from a surplus of soft drink cans. The specimens inside included lizards, a polychaete worm, two marine fish, and several tarantulas—all preserved in alcohol—as well as several bags of dried plant material. A human tibia and skull were at the bottom of the case. I also had with me a cardboard box full of herbarium specimens, and concealed inside a duffel bag was a live and rather active specimen of Bufo marinus. The customs agent opened the metal suitcase, took a quick look, and violently slammed it shut.

illustration of toad and cactus
Artwork by Alice Hoffmann

“Look,” he said in a voice tempered by the back alleys of Brooklyn, “It’s Easter Sunday. I didn’t even want to work today. I don’t know who the fuck you are. Just get the fuck out of here.”

The following morning I walked through the dark corridors of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and deposited the animal specimens with various specialists for identification. My initial concern, as it would be in any such ethnopharmacological investigation, was to determine whether or not the ingredients contained chemical compounds that either alone or in combination might account for a particular outcome. In the case of the Haitian zombie, I was looking for a drug that might induce a state of apparent death so profound that it could fool a Western physician. From the herpetologists, I learned that the toad was indeed Bufo marinus, and as I poked around the literature, I discovered that the curious creatures had quite a story. 

Native to the Caribbean, Bufo marinus thrives in low swampy habitats ranging from Florida, west along the Gulf Coast to Mexico, and south to Panama and northern South America. In the mid-fifteenth century, in the wake of European contact, it dispersed throughout tropical America, along the Pacific coast, and inland into the Amazon basin. They produce and secrete at least twenty-six compounds, all of which are biologically active, including bufotenine, a purported hallucinogen, and two classes of highly toxic cardiac glycosides, bufogenin and its derivative bufotoxin. These compounds are found in the skin and glands of a number of toads, including the common European species Bufo vulgaris, and it is their properties that have earned these animals a notorious place in the repertoires of poisoners and practitioners of black magic throughout the world.

Even as I considered and eliminated the toad as a suspect in the zombie investigation, I was astonished to learn that anthropologists have long speculated that the Maya and other ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica may have used Bufo marinus as a ritual intoxicant. Given the toxicity of the venom, this seemed unlikely, but I was nevertheless intrigued. The discovery of a psychoactive toad would be extraordinary. All known and deliberate human uses of natural hallucinogens at that time involved derivatives of higher plants and fungi. No hallucinogenic agent had yet been found in the animal kingdom.

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The argument in favor of the toad as a hallucinogen was based on several lines of evidence. First, throughout Central America, the toad was a prominent symbol, particularly in Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec iconography. Numerous artifacts, including small ceramic serving bowls, bear obvious toad representations with especially graphic portrayals of the distinctive parotoid glands. Second, at a number of Olmec and Maya sites, Bufo marinus bones have been found in great abundance and often in ritual contexts. Third, one of the substances secreted by the toad is bufotenine, a compound found in a hallucinogenic snuff known as yopo made today by South American Indians from the seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina

The central weakness of the hallucinogen hypothesis, however, seemed to be the inability of proponents to demonstrate how any preparation of Bufo marinus could be safely consumed. After a week in the library, I was convinced the anthropologists were wrong. In 1988, I published these conclusions. Then, a year or two later, my phone rang in the middle of the night. At the time, I was living in Vancouver. The call came from a reporter in Toronto. A grown man had raised a pet toad for eight years and then decided to suck its venom glands. Evidently, I had not been the only one reading the anthropological literature.

Picking up on the mistaken idea that Bufo marinus could get you high, he and a friend had squeezed the glands and then ingested the toxic secretions. Both had become violently ill and ended up in the emergency room. The police were confused. The Canadian Criminal Code contained nothing about licking toads. The Americans, however, apparently knew all about the potential danger of a new drug craze. With characteristic zeal, the Drug Enforcement Agency had identified the milky white toad venom as bufotenine, a “dangerous new hallucinogen.” The fact that there was not a shred of evidence suggesting that the compound was psychoactive had not deterred the U.S. government from placing bufotenine in Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, along with LSD. Though it would come as a surprise to pet shop owners all over America who sell the homely creatures for twenty to fifty dollars, possession of Bufo marinus is a criminal offense, subject to the same sanctions reserved for heroin and crack cocaine.

The Toronto toad-licking episode was part of a small wave of bufo mania that made its way to North America from Australia in the late 1980s. In May 1988, the Weekly World News ran the first of several tabloid articles under the banner headlines, “Rare Toad Keeps Druggies Hopping,” “Toad Licking Poses Threat to Youth in America,” and “Druggies Find Sick New Way To Get High—They Lick Toads!” The mainstream newspapers soon followed. “Terror Toads,” proclaimed The New York Times. “A Dark Invasion in the Sunshine State,” warned the Chicago Tribune. American pop culture may have reached a new low on the night Beavis and Butthead touted toad licking on MTV.

By this point, politicians were beginning to stir. In Georgia, Representative Beverly Langford introduced legislation in the state’s General Assembly urging lawmakers to consider “the extreme dangers of toad licking becoming the designer drug of choice in today’s sophisticated society.” Ms. Langford did not specify what might become the new drug of choice among the unsophisticated. Next door in South Carolina, Representative Patrick Harris introduced similar legislation. Noting that toad-licking was “repulsive,” he recommended sentencing criminal offenders to “sixty hours of public services in a local zoo.” 

Though fueled by hysterical reports in the media, and misinformation and paranoia on the part of antidrug crusaders, the toad-licking saga revealed more than anything the extraordinary lengths to which people would go to get intoxicated. Missing from the heated rhetoric, however, was one obvious fact: an animal venom that contained no hallucinogenic agent but which did contain lethal poisons was not likely to inspire a new drug craze. Whenever I had a chance, I tried to make this clear. Finally, totally frustrated, I gave up and turned to the one person I knew who might be able to make sense of the situation.

READ: AI Can Now Generate DMT Visuals, Thanks To This Online Community

illustration of toad sitting on mushroom
Artwork by Alice Hoffmann

Though known today as America’s wellness doctor, Andrew Weil established his reputation as a thoughtful voice in a noisy debate about the nature and the character of human drug use. 

Andrew and I had been friends for years, both of us having studied ethnobotany with Richard Evans Schultes at Harvard. By overnight mail, I sent to his home in Tucson a copy of my paper which dismissed the possibility of Bufo marinus being hallucinogenic. A few days later, I had a message from him on my answering machine.

“It’s a great paper,” he said, “but there’s just one problem. I keep hearing about all these freaks around here going into the desert and smoking toad. I know this guy who does it all the time.”

That evening, I called him back and told him I’d be right down. The next weekend, I flew to Arizona. The toad caper was on.

With the sun going down over the Sonoran Desert, Andrew led me down a dusty trail toward a narrow draw that opened onto a flat enveloped by mesquite trees and looming cacti. In the middle of the clearing was a large fire, heaped with red-hot stones. To one sideways a traditional sweat lodge, a willow arbor low to the ground and half covered with dark canvas. Tending the fire was the person we had come to see, White Dog, Andrew’s main toad man. At six-foot-four, with a beard and dreadlocks to the waist, he towered over the burning coals, a barefoot desert wizard in red sweatpants and a lilac shirt that fused seamlessly with the setting sun.

With a warm embrace, he greeted Andrew, and then, turning to me, asked, “So, have you tasted toad?”

“No,” I replied.

“It’s a tool for meditation,” he noted sagely, getting right to the point. “It’s for meditation because it will make you meditate whether you like to or not.”

“How often have you taken it?”

“Not often. Seventy-five, maybe a hundred times,” he replied. I gasped.

“White Dog thinks it’s the ultimate vehicle for mapping the limits of consciousness,” Andrew remarked.

“It’s an astral propellant,” White Dog added as if the phrase would explain all.

“Just where did you come up with all this?” I asked. His voice trailed off in a laugh as he moved away from the fire and made his way into the sweat lodge.

The story of White Dog and the magic toad unfolded through a long evening of searing heat. He grew up in Minnesota, acquired a taste for psychedelics as a youth, and later hooked up with the Peyote Way Church of God, a legally sanctioned religious descendant of the peyote cult that swept the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century. His name came to him in a vision. For a time, he considered establishing his own religious group, Migrant Agricultural Gypsies International, but the mass suicide in Jonestown and his own restless character made him fear the power and horrors of a private cult. He elected to work instead “on a cellular level,” individual to individual, spreading the word through personal revelation.

It was at this point that he stumbled upon an obscure pamphlet, published anonymously by a mysterious author who identified himself by the pseudonym Albert Most. The document described precisely how a toad could be milked, the venom dried, and then smoked for intoxication. It was a technique of ecstasy that appealed to White Dog. The idea was repulsive, the concept obscure, and the high by all accounts intense beyond imagination. Best of all, the toads were legal, common denizens of the Arizona desert, and presumably beyond reach of the law. Or so he thought.

“You say these toads are from here?” I asked.

“Yeah. You see them all the time, when the rains come in summer, when all the people who hate the desert but live here for the suntans split for other places and the land returns to what it once was.”

I turned to Andrew. “It can’t be Bufo marinus.”

“No. It’s not,” he said. “It’s Bufo alvarius.”

It was then that I realized that for thirty years anthropologists had been thinking about the wrong species of toad.

Over the next few days, Andrew and I, with the help of colleagues and reference librarians scattered across the country, pieced together the story. Bufo marinus, native to the Yucatan and lowland rain forests of Guatemala and found there in great abundance, had naturally drawn the attention of the Mayanists. Bufo alvarius, by contrast, is found only in the Sonoran Desert, an area of approximately 120,000 square miles extending from southeastern California across the southern half of Arizona and south approximately 400 miles into Mexico. 

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Nocturnal in habit, Bufo alvarius avoids the desert heat by burrowing beneath the ground during the day, emerging at dusk to congregate around streams, springs, and moist riverbeds. For most of the year, from September through April, the toads remain underground in a dormant state. Beginning in June, before the summer rains begin, the species is highly active, and the desert comes alive with thousands of the animals.

One of more than 200 species of bufo, the Sonoron toad is a large amphibian, and like Bufo marinus, it has prominent parotoid glands that secrete a viscous milky-white venom. The two species are morphologically similar, and iconographic representations would be impossible to distinguish. The secretions of Bufo alvarius, however, are distinctly different from those of its better-known relative.

Toad venom is chemically complex, with combinations of constituents peculiar to each species, a sort of biochemical fingerprint useful for taxonomic delineation. Bufo alvarius, as we learned from the literature, is unique within the genus in its possession of an unusual enzyme, O-methyl transferase, which, among other reactions, converts bufotenine (5-OH-DMT) to the extraordinarily potent hallucinogen 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethytryptamine (5-MeO-DMT). The activity of this enzyme leads to the production and accumulation of enormous amounts of 5-MeO-DMT, up to as much as 15 percent of the dry weight of the parotoid glands. Such a concentration of a pure drug in a living creature is virtually unheard of, and this was no ordinary compound.

One of the most powerful hallucinogens known from nature, 5-MeO-DMT is the compound responsible for the hallucinogenic properties of the South American snuffs derived from Anadenanthera peregrina and from various species of Virola, a genus of trees in the nutmeg family. In the plant kingdom, it usually occurs together with N, N-dimethytryptamine (DMT), another strong drug. DMT has been on the Controlled Substances Act in the most highly-restricted category since 1971, but its 5-methoxy derivative was only prohibited in 2011.

The disparity in the law probably had to do with the different reputations of these two drugs. When smoked, DMT produces a very rapid, brief, and intense intoxication marked by vivid visual imagery. These effects made it popular among users of LSD, psilocybin, and other well-known psychedelic drugs in the 60s, and thus drew the attention of authorities. By contrast, smoking pure 5-MeO-DMT, a more potent substance, produces an overwhelmingly powerful experience that can be unnerving. It is like taking a rocketship into the void. Whereas most hallucinogens, including LSD, merely distort reality, however, bizarrely, 5-MeO-DMT completely dissolves reality. One user described it as being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. The experience need not be negative, but it is not for the novice. As a result, during the first psychedelic wave, 5-MeO-DMT never gained the street popularity or notoriety of its chemical cousin.

The first published analysis of the venom of Bufo alvarius appeared in 1965, followed in 1967 by a more comprehensive study in a journal of pharmacology. The research was later reported in a book on the evolution of the genus Bufo. These publications probably inspired experimentation with the venom of Bufo alvarius that led to the appearance in 1984 of the underground pamphlet found by White Dog. Written by “Albert Most” and titled “Bufo alvarius, the Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert,” it gave detailed instructions for collecting and drying the venom, including useful tools and the glands worth milking.

These instructions seemed remarkable given the toxicity of the Sonoran toad. Oral exposure can be deadly, both to dogs and people. But from the testimony of White Dog and interviews conducted with other toad lovers, it seemed that the venom could be safely smoked. The toxic constituents would be denatured and the full potential of the hallucinogenic component, 5-MeO-DMT, would be realized. On the strength of this deduction, we felt confident in initiating a series of self-experiments with Bufo alvarius venom obtained from White Dog.

illustration of toad hanging on rope
Artwork by Alice Hoffmann

Both of us had previously smoked synthetic 5-MeO-DMT and were familiar with its effects. When we burned the venom we found that the odor and taste of the smoke closely resembled the very distinctive odor and taste of the vapor of the pure compound. We prepared a small chip of dried venom, the size of a paper match head. Within fifteen seconds of a single deep inhalation of the vaporized material, both of us experienced pronounced psychoactive effects: warm flushing sensations, a sense of wonder and well-being, strong-auditory hallucinations…

Over the next few days, as Andrew and I walked the ancient desert landscape that surrounded his home, we pondered the significance and potential of what we had found. It was, of course, one thing to show that the toad venom was psychoactive. It was quite another to prove that the substance had actually been used in the Americas in pre-Columbian times.

Indigenous peoples of the Sonoran Desert would certainly have recognized the toxicity of Bufo alvarius. The animal has no predators and poisons dogs. We also knew that these properties would not have deterred experimentation but, on the contrary, would have drawn attention to the toad. The record of folk experimentation suggests that Amerindian peoples consistently underwent considerable risk, marked no doubt by the occasional deaths of individuals, in their search for pharmacologically active substances. Some psychoactive plants, employed ritually now or in the past, are highly toxic. 

From Tucson, we phoned Peter Furst at the University of Pennsylvania to let him know the results of our experiments and to seek his advice on the possible use of the toad in prehistoric Mexico. Peter was a lone voice among anthropologists. As long ago as 1972, in a paper that I had initially overlooked, he had drawn attention to the Sonoran toad. Delighted to learn of our successful self-experiments, he faxed a copy of his early paper. “The area to which Bufo alvarius is presently native,” he had written, “was once inhabited by archaic desert cultures; it is also the putative homeland of the Uto-Aztecans, from which they expanded southward into Mexico as early as 1500 B.C. Was it the shamans of the pre-agricultural desert cultures who discovered the potent psychotomimetic effects of toad poison and whose ecstatic trance experiences gave rise to the now widespread beliefs in the toad as a transforming shamaness…?”

At the time, Peter told us, he had thought that Indians would have had to ingest the toxin of Bufo alvarius by steeping the toad in some sort of potion. He did not know that taken alone 5-MeO-DMT is orally inactive or that the venom could be collected, dried, and smoked. 

Extensive trade routes through the Sonoran Desert to Mesoamerica have been well documented, and dried venom would have been an excellent object of trade. It is an axiom of long-distance commerce that the ideal trade item is one that is highly esteemed, easy to transport, durable, readily available at the source, and difficult or impossible to find at the point of exchange. Bufo alvarius venom meets all the requirements. 

At this point, we believed but had no proof that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica used Bufo alvarius as a hallucinogen. On the basis of solid chemical and pharmacological evidence, we were quite certain that they did not use Bufo marinus. Still, there was the puzzling issue of the distribution of Bufo marinus bones at various Mayan sites. While Bufo marinus may well have been consumed as food, the fact remains that the toad is often found in ritual contexts, from a partially intact skeleton inside a Late Classic burial vessel at Seibal to a skull found in a Classic burial at Dzibilchaltun. 

As Andrew and I discussed the matter, several plausible explanations emerged. The toads may have been employed as ritual offerings not because they were hallucinogenic but because they embodied a wealth of powerful symbolic meanings. The toad—as the Great Earth Mother, as an image of transformation, of death and regeneration, and as a harbinger of the seasonal rains and protector of crops—is a potent mythic complex found throughout the Americas. 

There was one other intriguing possibility. Both Bufo marinus and Bufo alvarius are enormous toads, readily distinguished from many other species of the genus by their size. In studying the remains from various Mayan sites, archeologists would have no difficulty separating Bufo marinus bones from the remains of the other toads native to the region and would not think to compare them with Bufo alvarius, an obscure species found in a completely different habitat several hundred miles away.

When I returned from Tucson to Vancouver, I wrote to Elizabeth Wing at the University of Florida, who had identified the amphibian remains at San Lorenzo and other ancient sites. Could it be, I asked, that some of the toad remains found in ritual context and identified as Bufo marinus were, in fact, Bufo alvarius? Her response was fascinating. “I am sure,” she wrote, “that Bufo alvarius was not considered a possibility in the identifications I made from material in Vera Cruz and Belize. I am sure I looked just at the regional species and the large size of Bufo marinus separated it easily.” Intrigued, she examined the skeletal remains of Bufo marinus and Bufo alvarius, finding that they could not be easily distinguished from one another. 

READ: 5-MeO-DMT: The Story Behind the God Molecule

illustration of toad in jar
Artwork by Alice Hoffmann

Clearly, as Andrew and I would later write, it would be premature to conclude that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica used Bufo alvarius as a sacred intoxicant. However, having proved beyond doubt that a psychoactive toad does exist and was available in pre-Columbian America, we were keen that others more knowledgeable in the field of Mesoamerican studies should reexamine the archaeological and iconographic record with this revelation in mind. In particular, we hoped to inspire a careful review of the osteological remains in order to determine whether Bufo alvarius had in fact already been found at various Mayan sites.

To this end, in 1992 we published a long review paper in the anthropological journal Ancient Mesoamerica. Both of us felt good about our results. We had opened up new ethnographic and ethnohistorical vistas for archaeologists and decisively laid to rest the deeply flawed and dangerous notion that Bufo marinus is hallucinogenic. With luck, we hoped word would spread, and fewer individuals would end up in hospital emergency rooms. In addition, we had demonstrated that the secretions of Bufo alvarius, though known to be toxic when consumed orally, may be safely smoked and are powerfully psychoactive by that route of administration. Our experiments represented the first documentation of a hallucinogenic agent from the animal kingdom, as well as providing clear evidence of a psychoactive toad that could have been employed by pre-Columbian peoples of the New World.

The response to our paper was somewhat surprising. Though it was generally well received, Andrew and I nevertheless became the fulcrum of an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of self-experimentation in science. On June 3, 1994, The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, ran an article, “Taking Their Own Medicine,” which focused on our toad work. Some scientists were deeply offended that we had sampled the venom, as opposed to employing the analytical capability of a modern laboratory. Our position was unequivocal. We had not entered the experiment blindly, but rather with care and consideration. As far as we knew the Uto-Aztecans, not to mention the Mayans, had not had white frocked technicians, precisely calibrated scales, or white rats caged in laboratories. Since our goal had been to test whether Bufo alvarius venom was psychoactive in humans, the experiment was, by definition, subjective. Also, we considered it to be more ethical to test the venom on ourselves than to use, for example, unknowing prison inmates, as had been done in the past. Moreover, we were acting in a manner consistent with an established tradition of self-experimentation that through the years has resulted in some of the most important discoveries in pharmacology. As Andrew explained to the media, “I think the kind of inspiration which comes from an experience makes for the best kind of science.”

This did not quiet our critics. In unveiling the truth about the potentially deadly Bufo marinus, we were apparently guilty of fomenting a new drug craze. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, “Toad Smoking Gains on Toad-Licking among Drug Users,” revealed what was really going on among toad aficionados. Our research was discussed, but the genesis of the report lay elsewhere.

On Monday, January 24, 1994, California drug agents arrested Robert Shepard, a forty-one-year-old teacher and naturalist in Angels Camp, about 100 miles east of San Francisco. Shepard’s wife, Connie, 37, was also nabbed in the sting, along with Hans, Franz, Peter, and Brian, their four pet Bufo alvarius toads. The War on Drugs had hit a new low. Shepard was not, in the words of the narcotics agent who busted him, “your average maggot-looking dope dealer on the corner.” To the contrary, by all accounts, he was a model citizen with no previous criminal record. An Explorer Scout Leader and thirteen-year volunteer with the Calaveras County Sheriff Department’s search-and-rescue squad, Shepard made a living teaching elementary school children about the wonders of nature. 

The Shephards were the first to be charged with possessing a toad for illicit purposes since 1579. That was the year Mother Dutton of Cleworthe Parish in England was accused of frolicking intimately with a toad in her flower garden. Declared a witch, she was executed. 

Bob Shepard lost his job and was ordered into drug rehabilitation for the crime of possessing a toad. Ironically, what made his activity illegal was the fact that the venom contained bufotenine, a compound with no hallucinogenic properties. There was no mention of 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine, arguably the most powerful hallucinogen in nature and a compound that, at the time, was as legal in America as apple pie. No one said that the War on Drugs was supposed to make sense.

In the years following Bob Shepard’s arrest, the worst fears of drug enforcement agents were not realized. In New York, a performance artist named Zero Boy was caught with venom while rehearsing his latest production, aptly named Amphibia. In Arizona, a man was found with dozens of Bufo alvarius toads in his living room, far in excess of the quota of ten permitted under state law. John Romeo, the enforcement manager of the Arizona Department of Fish and Game, was stumped by the case until, as he recalled, “the light came on” and he realized that the toads were being kept as a source of drugs. 

These isolated incidents aside, toad smoking did not sweep the nation. As Andrew and I suggested at the time, a way of getting high that requires traveling to the Sonoran desert, capturing in the dark enormous and slightly repulsive toads poisonous to the touch, milking their toxic glands, drying the venom on glass, and inhaling a substance that sends one into a netherworld of oblivion was not likely to catch on. With some confidence, we assured anyone who would listen that the toad’s moment of fame, brought on in part by our research and publications, would surely be short-lived.

We could not have been more wrong. Today, toad venom and other sources of  5-MeO-DMT are among the darlings of a psychedelic revival that would have been unimaginable to us as we stumbled upon White Dog in the desert more than thirty years ago. Across the world, small armies of underground practitioners are administering pure 5-MeO-DMT, alongside plant medicines such as ayahuasca, peyote, and huachuma. In his best-selling books, Michael Pollan, a late arrival at the party, writes openly about his 5-MeO-DMT experience. In recent years, toad medicine also saw a boost in popularity when former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson credited 5-MeO-DMT for saving him from crippling depression. Drug development companies are taking note, too, with trials underway intended to put 5-MeO-DMT on the path to legalization as a therapeutic treatment. Toad venom has officially entered mainstream popular culture—and demand for the drug now threatens the very survival of the species in the wild. The Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund encourages people to smoke synthetic 5-MeO-DMT versus 5-MeO-DMT derived from the actual toad. There is a growing movement demanding simply that the animals be left alone. 

White Dog, our friend and guide, didn’t live to see this frenzy of consumption; he passed away some years ago. But I like to think that he’s still with us, out there in the desert, still hard at work “mapping the limits of consciousness,” inspired by the same spirit of wonder that has propelled experimentation with mind-altering substances since the dawn of human awareness. This impulse, embraced by Neolithic shamans, honored by the ancient Maya, and invoked today by solitary seekers like White Dog, will never be extinguished. We may never know whether or not the ancient peoples of the Americas discovered the bizarre properties of this unique toad. But of one thing we can be sure. They too were on the lookout for sacred medicines and would have envied White Dog’s good fortune.

*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue 9 in June 2023.

Have You Heard…?

Debate continues over which version of 5-MeO is more effective or responsible: synthetic or the fresh-squeezed toad variety. Some are concerned with the Sonoran Desert Toads’ welfare, claiming that catch-and-release capturing exposes them to threats like climate change and habitat destruction that endanger their populations.

5-MeO-DMT, the primary psychedelic in the secretions of the Sonoran Desert Toad, produces experiences distinct from smoked DMT and ayahuasca. In 2020, research by Alan Davis and colleagues found that love, joy, and kindness were the predominant emotions in DMT experiences. However, survey results suggest that 41 percent of consumers felt fear during their DMT journeys.

It was a big win for the psychedelic research community when Rick Strassman got approval to study DMT in humans in the 1990s. Psychedelic research came to a halt in 1970 when Richard Nixon signed The Controlled Substances Act into law. Gaining approval for Strassman’s research was no easy feat. Editor-in-Chief Shelby Hartman has the interview.

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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