Sunday, May 19, 2024

Smoking toad, the healing mystical experience found in Mexico

Call me old-fashioned, but the idea of inhaling the dried venom of a toad for healing seems pretty far-out. But perhaps, like me, you’ve also heard the rumor that smoking toad — known as bufo in its native Mexico — can positively transform your perspective on life, or provide the impetus to quit smoking or alcohol, all in the space of 20-60 minutes.

It has been a vigorous decade of clinical studies that show the positive health benefits of psychedelics, like LSD, psilocybin, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), and ketamine — from prestigious institutions like Imperial College, London and Johns Hopkins University. “The research about the toad toxin is in its infancy, and further investigation is warranted in healthy volunteers”, says Alan K Davis from John Hopkins. 

Among the thousands of effusive (though occasionally negative) public opinions, Hunter Biden publicly claimed in his 2021 memoir, ‘Beautiful Things’, that his toad experience in a Mexican clinic helped his addiction more than any other treatment. Mike Tyson also went public to the 10 million strong audience on Joe Rogan’s podcast, lauding the benefit of “the toad” for his health, happiness and spirituality.  

This prompted my desire to look into more about the substance, its history, safety, the current research, the people who rave about it and crucially — if and where bufo is legal. 

Due to Mexico being one of the few countries in the world where bufo is legal to procure and to partake (it’s not legal in the United States or United Kingdom), many people travel here for therapeutic sessions with the toxin of the Sonoran toad.

How does 5-MeO-DMT — the psychedelic compound in bufo — work?  

The 5-MeO-DMT molecule ball is composed of Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Oxygen. (Wikimedia Commons)

Get ready for this; it’s trippy. The molecule 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) is a psychoactive compound found in certain plants (such as the mimosa) and the venom secreted from the parotid glands of a toad, Bufo Alvarius. This toad inhabits the Sonoran desert, spanning southern parts of Arizona in the United States and Sonora in Northwest Mexico. It is one of largest toad species native to North America, with a lifespan reaching 20 years, and it spends most of the year hibernating underground, resurfacing to eat and breed during the summer monsoon rains. 

When they come out of hibernation, these toads are caught for a short time and “milked” to extract the poison they use to fight off predators. When done correctly, this process does not harm the toads. However, the steady increase in the demand for the secretion may be putting the toad population at risk. Many more responsible or concerned facilitators (experienced users who act as bufo “guides”) have opted to only use synthetic 5-MeO-DMT, which is reported to have a nearly identical effect but a lower environmental impact. 

If you decide to experiment with this treatment, here’s what you’ll experience: one dose of dried venom, ranging from 20 to 60 micrograms, is vaporized and smoked through a glass pipe. The effects are immediate and intense, inducing a powerful out-of-body experience that begins within seconds. After the 20-minute peak, users gradually return to feeling clear-headed and back to their previous state.  Around 30 minutes later, users we spoke to reported a “profound gratitude for life,” “a euphoric clarity about what’s good and what’s harmful in their personal lives and society” and “a complete reduction in feelings of stress, anxiety or depression.”

How did smoking bufo begin? 

As recently as the 1980s, Ken Nelson, a Texan researcher in Life Sciences and a bit of a maverick, was credited with first smoking toad venom, after drying it on his car windscreen. He’d been motivated by Italian toxicologist Dr. Vittorio Erspamer’s comprehensive chemical analysis of toad venoms, which showed that only Bufo alvarius, out of 40 species of the genus Bufo, was capable of biosynthesizing 5-MeO-DMT. He rushed to publish the pamphlet, “Bufo alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert,” under the pseudonym Albert Most, fervently praising its potential benefits.

As the pamphlet circulated in niche scientific circles and fringe wellness and spiritual culture, underground use of Bufo Alvarius’ secretion expanded.

In the early 1990s, 5-MeO-DMT in its synthetic form was available via mail-order in the United States. However, as its popularity surged, governments became increasingly aware of its presence in the market, leading to its gradual prohibition in numerous countries during the 2000s. 

In 2013, Mexico was put on the map as the epicenter of “the toad” treatment, when Dr. Octavio Rettig, a Mexican physician from Guadalajara, told the story of healing from his own addiction at a TEDx talk. He went on to claim that introducing bufo to the Seri tribe in Northern Mexico cured their methamphetamine addiction problem (likely a result of being caught up in narco wars territory) and that he believed the toad toxin had probably been used as part of ancient Mesoamerican healing rituals in Mexico (no serious evidence of this has been produced).

Illustrative image of how the substance containing the 5-MeO-DMT molecule is ingested. (octaviorettig.com)

A Vice documentary about Rettig’s claims, and his clinic, the Crossroads Treatment Center in Tijuana, reached 4 million viewers. People today still flock to bufo retreats and practitioners in Mexico, as Rettig’s narrative was popularized among the curious and those seeking healing with bufo. Today, Rettig is a demonized figure and shunned by the bufo community — there are countless reports questioning Rettig’s claims, character and some records of serious abuse. But Mexico has remained a highly popular destination for bufo consumption as its legitimacy evolves.  

The first World Bufo Alvarius Congress was organized in 2018 by Sandra Gancz Kahan, bufo facilitator, and Rak Razam, author, bufo advocate and a key figure in the bufo scene, in Mexico City. Neuroscientists, scholars, writers, facilitators, filmmakers and enthusiasts gathered to focus on best practices, safety, integration and conservation guidelines and the future of therapeutic usage.

What are bufo’s potential benefits and is it safe? 

Bufo is trending for many reasons; from claims to overcoming trauma and addiction, to reports that a single bufo ceremony can provide more effective results for combating depression or severe anxiety than psychiatric drugs and years of psychotherapy. U.S. veterans are attending psychedelic retreats in Mexico to address their PTSD, when traditional methods of therapy have failed.

Despite bufo being studied by world-renowned research centers, the results aren’t yet conclusive — unlike the robust positive results shown for other psychedelic substances. One can’t help wondering about the multi-level implications of imbibing the toxin from an amphibious creature.  

However, when studying the brain after consumption of 5-MeO-DMT, fMRI tests show greater brain neuroplasticity, with the formation of new neural pathways aiding the ability to replace toxic thought patterns with healthier new ones. 

There are countless euphoric reports from people that echo the words of one of the early pioneers of psychedelic medicine, Stanislav Grof; “by experiencing this profound connection with the universe and all living beings, one gets the feeling that we are incredibly lucky to have been born on this beautiful planet.”

In an article of May this year, a peer-reviewed medical article on medical information site Healthline, reported that the intensity of the experience can produce a racing heart and confusion, and that anyone with high blood pressure, heart conditions or taking pharmaceutical antidepressants should steer clear. 

In other words, this life-altering experience is not for the faint of heart — literally or metaphorically.  

How to find a safe bufo practitioner in Mexico

If you’re a wealthy tech wizard in Silicon Valley, you might have already partaken in a bespoke “toad ceremony.” The intense, swift experience (compared to the usual 5 or 6-hour experience with psilocybin or ayahuasca) which aims to “upgrade the system” on multiple levels, is very popular with this crowd.  

But if you’re just you, venturing out in search of a bufo practitioner or retreat in Mexico, you need to approach this treatment, and who you take it with, with real vigilance. It’s not hard to find the reports of bad trips or abusive practitioners — and that’s a topic getting more attention as “psychedelic tourism” booms. 

Sasha, a facilitator in Mexico City, told me ”ideally, gather testimonials about that practitioner, or wait until someone you trust recommends someone or a retreat. Crucially — check with your doctor before you set off on this healing adventure, and never try it alone. I am an advocate, of course, but I admit that it is certainly not for everyone.” 

As in all psychedelic-assisted therapies, integration — consciously understanding the impact of the powerful insights gained, and applying them to one’s life — is best approached with a trusted therapist. 

What is the future of smoking ‘the toad’ for healing and health?

The research and surging popularity around 5-MeO-DMT seem to hold promise as a unique and transformative approach for profound self-discovery and collective healing. In the words of Mike Tyson, “I look at life differently, I look at people differently. It’s almost like dying and being reborn. It’s inconceivable.”  

As Lee, a practitioner assisting Silicon Valley tech workers says, “I couldn’t be further from the Mexican desert toad’s environment, or any sacred Indigenous Mexican knowledge, but I try to remember and honor Mexico as a very important epicenter of psychedelic healing practices. Know your roots! I do believe that smoking ‘the toad’ can help people heal themselves and be nicer to each other – and that’s what I want to share.”

If readers are interested in learning more, visit this Five-meo website 

All names of practitioners have been changed to protect their identity. 

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal or medical advice. Individuals should always consult with qualified professionals regarding the use of 5-MeO-DMT or any other substance for medical purposes, taking into account the applicable laws and regulations of their jurisdiction.

Henrietta Weekes is a writer, editor, actor and narrator. She divides her time between San Miguel de Allende, New York and Oxford, UK. 

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