Ali Cotina, MA (C)

Ali Cotina, MA (C)

Alí Cortina is a History major from the Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico. He is currently doing his masters degree in Social Sciences and Humanities with the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa.
Ali Cotina, MA (C)

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The increasing supply and consumption of the so-called “toad medicine” in various parts of the world has led to a series of claims without theoretical, or historical support

The increasing supply and consumption of the so-called “toad medicine” in various parts of the world has led to a series of claims without theoretical, or historical support, and have allowed it to become an important lucrative activity for various stakeholders. The presentation of neurological data, supposed ancestral use, and psychological and spiritual interpretations are presented as a justification for the implementation of new practices that are potentially dangerous, such as combining it with ayahuasca or iboga,1 or supplying large doses of toad to force an “entheogenic” experience. Although there is a small field of serious researchers, therapists, and facilitators investigating the possible human uses, only one statement can be made with strong assurances: toad medicine is in the process of knowledge construction, which is why it is vitally important to thoroughly remove the myths caused by disinformation.  At this point in time, there are only a few preliminary scientific investigations in to the possible therapeutic potential of 5-MeO-DMT on some mental health and substance use related problems,23 and this research is in its early stages and lacks longitudinal or randomized controlled trial designs, which is needed before such conclusive claims about therapeutic efficacy can be made.

The “toad medicine,” belonging to the Bufo alvarius or Incilius alvarius toad, it is extracted by “milking” the parotid glands; it is then dried in the sun, adopting the shape of small yellow leaves, which are smoked in a glass pipe, using a torch flame lighter, providing a strong psychoactive experience. The toad extract has been found to contain a total of 21 alkaloids, of which approximately 11 are tryptamines, the prevalent one being 5-meo-DMT, which can constitute 10–15% of the total compound.4 In other words, there is not only one psychoactive substance that is inhaled with the “toad medicine,” but rather a combination of diverse chemical elements that have effects on both physical and psychic levels. We know very little about these other elements; many questions remain regarding the neuropharmacology of the impact and functioning of the toad on the human brain.

There is limited scientific evidence that the consumption of toad extract treats addictions

Currently, prevailing interpretations insist on comparing synthesized 5-MeO-DMT to the substance extracted from the toad. Clearly, this is a flawed exercise; the diverse chemical components make the medicine of the toad an unstable substance, highlighting the importance of the setting in which it is consumed. However, following the argument based on the existence of scientific and neurological studies emerging around 5-MeO-DMT, along with increased understanding of the neurotransmission processes, a series of claims have been made linking the toad remedy to addiction treatment as a means of achieving increased mental health. Nevertheless, little evidence supports this claim and more work needs to be done before we can say that these statements are in fact true. This sort of information has been presented at various psychedelic forums around the world and, although the idea that an altered state of consciousness could be used therapeutically or as a praxis of cognitive liberty5 should not be discarded, there is is limited scientific evidence that the consumption of toad extract treats addictions. Further, there is growing concern that one might establish a problematic relationship to “the toad medicine”.

It cannot yet be confirmed or denied if this psychoactive substance was used by the Aridoamerican and Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic cultures

In the same sense, one of the main factors that has led to the exoticism of smoking the “toad medicine”—coming from an animal and being one of the most powerful psychoactive substances found in the natural world—has been its connection to an imaginary indigenous ancestry. It cannot yet be confirmed or denied if this psychoactive substance was used by the Aridoamerican and Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic cultures. Given the limited sources and lack of research that exists, studies have, and continue, to interpret some archaeological and iconographic678remains as the ritualistic role of a Bufo species toad that could possibly be the Bufo alvarius. However, as Lozoya9 noted early on, in terms of their archaeological interpretation, the research carried out in Mexico by the pioneering researchers of psychoactive plants is a domain full of tensions, incongruities, and forced connections that provides confusing information regarding the possible past uses of certain psychoactive plants, as is now the case with interpretations that are generated by the Bufo alvarius.

The Bufo toad is present in different cosmologies around the world and linked primarily to shamanic, spiritual, and divinatory purposes.10 This is the case with the Bufo marinus in the voodoo culture in Haiti, in which the toad is an important ingredient in the preparation of the zombie drink,11 or its speculated ritual use in other areas of the Caribbean, such as southern Veracruz and the Yucatan Peninsula.12 However, it is not clear how the Bufo alvarius “toad medicine” could have been consumed by the northern indigenous cultures and in other parts of the continent if it was used this way, nor the role it could have had in ancient cosmology. However, cosmological elements related to a toad exist in the Sonoran Desert, as well as in the Yaqui culture, in which a amphibian is a rain deity with the name of Boboók. Likewise, the toad Bufo alvarius, or “bull toad” (as it is known in Sonora), is called koarepa by the Yaquis, which, in some cases, has an important role in agricultural rituals. (Tetabiakti, personal communication, 2018). Also some foundational myths of the Tohono O’odham that narrate how the Big Brother who created the Papago world lives in a cave in Pinacate, and took the form of a petrified toad.13

We can make one affirmation with certainty regarding the absence of these practices in the contemporary cultures of the Sonoran Desert: Whether the toad was used or not in an ancestral manner, it would not have much in common with how it is being used today. The ancestral discourse that has been promoted by certain actors is nothing more than a means to exalt elements of alterity.

There is evidence of smoking the toad extraction in the in the Pima territory of the state of Arizona since the 1960s, and this has been documented since the 1980s.1415 It was during this time that it began to take on a central role in some New Age groups linked to psychonautics, such as The Church of the Toad of Light.16 However, its use was not popularized or taken up by the media until it was linked to the indigenous cultures of the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, beginning with the introduction of this practice in 2011 to the Comca’ac community of Punta Chueca in Sonora. This occurred via the intermediary of a Sonoran civil society organization, now known as Fundación OTAC., in collaboration with Octavio Rettig, who proposed using the toad to treat the methamphetamine addiction of some of community members.1718This process mediated the use of otac (“toad” in the Comca’ ac language) in this culture.

large network of actors in “new transnational communities” that have adopted the toad as an “ancestral and spiritual medicine”

In the following years, the practice expanded to community members and other people who presented as descendants of the Yaqui cultures, Tohono O’oddham, and Mayos. Currently, a process of cultural hybridization is underway through an increasingly large network of actors in “new transnational communities” that have adopted the toad as an “ancestral and spiritual medicine”19

It is by virtue of their relationships with members of indigenous groups in Sonora that some toad facilitators travel the world spreading unsupported claims, often via partnerships with scientists involved in psychedelic medicine who have smoked the toad. Some Bufo facilitators and enthusiasts call themselves experts, but maintain few criteria and a limited social dimension of knowledge construction, revealing serious problems in the unstable and controversial field of psychoactive research. Some points to consider:

  • The “toad medicine” does not only contain 5-MeO-DMT, but rather, has 11 tryptamines.
  • There is no clear evidence of ritual psychoactive use in the indigenous cultures of Aridoamerica and Mesoamerica.
  • There are only a few preliminary studies showing that it is associated with treatment for addictions.
  • The term “medicine” is not agreed upon by the different indigenous cultures of Sonora.

In the Comca’ ac case, it should be noted that media coverage regarding consumption within this culture, and the economic benefits some facilitator shave garnered on their own behalf, show that this community is one of the weakest links in the various unrooted beliefs that are now woven around the toad. Within the community, there were no substantial economic gains, nor was there much enrichment from participating in these practices. On the contrary, the problematic context of poverty, marginalization, social exclusion, and lack of resources such as drinking water in the Comca’ ac’s territory, has made some facilitators and civil associations, such as Despierta and Ayuda Foundation of Mexico City, collect resources and support for the community.

Likewise, the ceremonial use of this psychoactive compound by important shamans and spiritual leaders, in combination with traditional healing songs, should not be considered superficial or linear, but rather as an emerging process of cultural reinvention and re-vindication. This should be contrasted with the fact that there may be some community members, or people who present themselves as descendants of this or other desert cultures, who are simply trying to take economic advantage of the toad.

Within the cultures that are using the toad, there is no agreed upon use of it as “medicine” and, while it is accepted by some, it is also rejected by others; thus, we find a diversity of positions by these groups regarding the toad, as has been the case of the Yaqui and To hono O’odham leaders. Its increased prevalence as a ritual in urban contexts has been conflated into a logic of pan-indigenous psychoactive consumption in which it is linked to an indigenous cultural subgroup as a cure for the psycho-emotional discomforts of the current “Westernized” society. This is also evidenced in urban consumption of the peyote and yage20 that are sought as tools for transformation, self-knowledge, and well-being, through an interpretation that opens the universe of subjectivity, providing a coherent articulation between belief, experience, and the discourse with which it is shared. This creates a threshold that opens the possibility of generating an interpretive, spiritual appropriation that might help those who seek a purpose-driven experience to generate confidence during their existence.

In general terms, the toad medicine has gone through a process of trial and error, experimentation, and a diversity of interpretations regarding its use.

In general terms, the toad medicine has gone through a process of trial and error, experimentation, and a diversity of interpretations regarding its use. The history and knowledge regarding the implications of its use on human sand society continue to be under construction. It may take several decades for us to really understand the impacts, possible benefits, and dangers around the toad medicine.

Editorial note: 

Adjustments in this article were made on Dec. 6th and Dec 30th, after it was originally published on line. A special thanks to Alan K. Davis for his valuable feedback regarding the current state of scientific research around the therapeutic use of 5-meo-DMT.


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