With the sun going down over the Sonoran Desert, Andrew [Andrew Weil, M.D] 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 side was a traditional sweat lodge, a willow arbor low to the ground and half covered with dark canvas. Just beyond was a trampoline. Tending the fire was the person we had come to see, White Dog, Andrew’s main toad man. At six-foot-four, with 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 things 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 it 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 imagining. Best of all, the toads were legal, common denizens of the Arizona desert, and presumably beyond the reach of law. Or so he thought.
It was then that I realized for thirty years the anthropologists had been thinking about the wrong species of toad.
“You say these toads are from here?” I asked.
“Yeah, you see them all the time, when the rains come in the 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. “Its Bufo alvarius.”
It was then that I realized for thirty years the 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 the 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. Nocturnal in habit, it 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 again, the species is highly active, and the desert comes alive with thousands of the animals.
One of more than 200 species of Bufo, the Sonoran desert 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 the 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 of in its possession of an usual enzyme, O-methyl transferase, which, among other reactions, converts bufotenine (5-OH-DMT) to the extraordinary potent hallucinogen 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (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 peregrine 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-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), another strong drug. Orally inactive as a result of the activity of an enzyme in the human gut, monoamine oxidase, these compounds are usually smoked and rarely injected. They may be ingested orally if taken in combination with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, as in the case of certain sophisticated indigenous preparations reported from the Northwest Amazon. Both DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are easily synthesized compounds that appeared as recreational psychedelics in the American drug subculture during the 1960s. DMT is a controlled substance under U.S. federal law, but its 5-methoxy-derivative is not. Some chemical supply houses sell 5-MeO-DMT, and the compound is occasionally diverted to human users.
Whereas most hallucinogens, including LSD, merely distort reality, however bizarrely, 5-MeO-DMT completely dissolved reality
The disparity in the law probably has 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, 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 dissolved 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, 5-MeO-DMT never gained the street popularity of notoriety of its chemical cousin. Over the years, it has remained an obscure drug taken mostly by small groups of psychiatrists and explorers of consciousness.
One learns, for example, that each gland, “can be squeezed a second time for an additional yield of venom if you allowed the toad a one-hour rest period. After this the glands are empty and require four to six weeks for regeneration.”
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. The document, which reads like a recipe from a cookbook, suggests useful tools and techniques, notes the glands worth milking, and even provides guidance on the frequency with which the toads can be exploited. One learns, for example, that each gland, “can be squeezed a second time for an additional yield of venom if you allowed the toad a one-hour rest period. After this the glands are empty and require four to six weeks for regeneration.”
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. We later recorded our impressions. I wrote:
In comparison to the pure compound the toad venom appears longer lasting and, because one does not completely lose contact with reality, far more pleasant, even sensual. Shortly after inhalation I experienced warm flushing sensations, a sense of wonder and well-being, strong auditory hallucinations, which included an insect-cicada sound that ran across my mind and seemed to link my body to the earth. Though I was indoors, there was a sense of the feel of earth, the dry desert soil passing through my fingers, the stars at midday, the scent of cactus and sage, the feel of dry leaves through the hands. Strong visual hallucinations in orblike brilliance, diamond patterns that undulated across my visual field. The experience was in every sense pleasant, with no disturbing physical symptoms, no nausea, perhaps a slight sense of increased heart rate. Warm waves coursed up and down my body. The effects lasted only a few minutes, but a pleasant afterglow continued for almost an hour.
Andrew’s remarks were somewhat more clinical:
Profound alteration of consciousness within a few seconds of exhaling. I relax into a deep, peaceful interior awareness. There is nothing scary about the effects and no sense of toxicity. I try to describe my feelings but am unable to talk for the first five minutes and then only with some difficulty. This is a powerful psychoactive drug, one that I think would appeal to most people who like the effects of hallucinogens. For the next hour I feel slow and velvety, with a slight pressure in my head. No long-lasting effects to report.
We repeated the experiment with a sample of venom Andrew had collected two years earlier in Gila County, Arizona. This material, which had been kept in a closed vial at room temperature, had darkened over time but was quite active.
Given that the toxic constituents of Bufo alvarius are evidently denatured by smoking, might Bufo marinus also be benignly hallucinogenic if smoked or administered by some means other than by mouth?
Experiencing this powerful psychoactive drug, easily obtained from a common and conspicuous toad, forced us to reconsider some of the issues raised in the anthropological literature. One question begged consideration. Given that the toxic constituents of Bufo alvarius are evidently denatured by smoking, might Bufo marinus also be benignly hallucinogenic if smoked or administered by some means other than by mouth? It was conceivable, provided that Bufo marinus contained a psychoactive substance. But clearly it did not. To experiment with a known poison that had no potential up side would be the height of folly. There was nothing in the chemical constituents of the glands of Bufo marinus to suggest that under any circumstances, now or in the past, it could be employed as a psychoactive agent. If the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica had a hallucinogen derived from a toad, the source would have had to be Bufo alvarius.
Excerpt from Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, Island Press, Washington D.C., 2011 by Wade Davis. Edited by Sophia Rokhlin. Used with permission of the author.