Bufo Alvarius: The highly coveted psychedelic toad of the Sonoran Desert that possesses a potent entheogen called 5-MeO-DMT
Growing up to 7 inches in length, Bufo Alvarius (also called the Colorado River toad or Sonoran Desert toad) is the largest toad native to the United States. It has smooth olive-green skin adorned with small bumpy warts, and slanted golden-colored eyes with horizontal pupils that, perhaps for reasons outlined below, exude a skeptical, “just leave me alone” kind of attitude.
You see, in response to stress or threat, this nocturnal amphibian secretes a milky-white intoxicating venom from the parotoid glands under its jaw. This venom just so happens to be the only animal source of the powerfully intense psychedelic drug, 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) a.k.a., “the God molecule”.
If the toad’s venom gets in the mouth of its predators, it can cause severe nausea or death. However, in humans, who discovered relatively recently that it could be dried and smoked, the venom induces a short-acting, ego-dissolving, mystical experience reported by users to span feelings of love and unity that transcend human conception.
As a consequence of this revelation, inhalation of Bufo alvarius venom has gained popularity in naturalistic settings as a treatment of mental health problems and for religious or spiritual exploration.
Interestingly, 5-MeO-DMT’s less potent cousin, the so-called “spirit molecule”, N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), was first discovered synthetically in 1931 by a German-Canadian natural product chemist named Richard Helmuth Frederick Manske before it was ever discovered in nature.
Up until Manske’s synthesis, the closest thing to DMT known to exist was bufotenin, a potent psychedelic in its own right, that had been isolated from the extract of Bufo Bufo (the common European toad) during World War I.
The isolation of bufotenin inspired a generation of chemists to experiment with this fascinating chemical. Then, in 1936, two Japanese chemists named Toshio Hoshino & Kenya Shimodaira were synthesizing derivatives of bufotenin when they made 5-MeO-DMT.
5-MeO-DMT was then found in nature in 1959 when trace quantities of the compound were detected in the bark of Dictyoloma incanescens. Since then, 5-MeO-DMT has been found in a wide variety of plants, and in fungi, specifically, two species of the agaric genus Amanita — Amanita citrina and Amanita porphyria.
Note: 5-MeO-DMT and DMT should not be confused as the same chemicals. 5-MeO-DMT possesses approximately 10-20x the potency of DMT, and produces profoundly different qualitative results.
The real breakthrough in 5-MeO-DMT research came from an Italian chemist named Vittorio Erspamer, best known for having discovered serotonin, who was interested in finding serotonin-like chemical substances in nature. Erspamer, whose method of extraction was brutal relative to today’s standards, cut an entire gland from a dead toad to profile the chemical composition of its venom, and became the first person to discover 5-MeO-DMT in Bufo Alvarius.
Although Erspamer managed to conduct a chemical analysis, his numbers revealed an exceedingly high bufotenin concentration of 37%. For comparison, analysis of properly expressed Bufo alvarius venom detects almost no bufotenin at all.
After Erspamer, there was a decades-long pause in research investigating the chemical composition of this psychedelic toad venom until April of 2019, when researchers assessing the psychological effects of 5-MeO-DMT included a chemical analysis of the samples being used.
Amazingly, the researchers reported that they detected trace amounts of DMT which had never before been detected in Bufo alvarius venom, as well as trace amounts of the lesser-known psychedelic N,N-diethyltryptamine (DET), which had never before been detected in nature.
However, the key takeaway from this research and the pioneering work of Erspamer, is that there is a tremendous amount of variation in the concentration of 5-MeO-DMT in Bufo venom. The authors of the 2019 study reported that there was a 50% increase in 5-MeO-DMT from the lowest potency venom sample to the highest.
This is important to acknowledge, especially considering reports of traveling ceremony facilitators eyeballing what they perceive to be an appropriate dose of this powerful medicine to serve attendees, which, by the way, is said to be active at as little as 2 milligrams. It wouldn’t even matter if a facilitator was to weigh a venom sample on the most accurate precision balance in the world, because the variation in the concentration of 5-MeO-DMT between samples is so significant.
The use of synthetic 5-MeO-DMT remained obscure until the publication of an influential pamphlet in 1984 that was authored under the pseudonym ‘Albert Most.’
This pamphlet, which had seemingly come from nowhere, contained information on everything one could possibly need to know about 5-MeO-DMT-containing toad venom, including how to correctly express it, how to administer it, and dosing guidelines.
In the second season of his hit TV show ‘Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia’, chemist, documentarian, and psychedelic explorer Hamilton Morris dedicated an entire episode to figuring out who Albert Most was. After being bizarrely confronted by a series of imposters who had assumed his identity, Morris was promptly contacted by several friends of the real Albert Most who were adamant that their friend receive credit for his seminal work.
Eventually, Morris was contacted by the real Albert Most, a veteran and psychedelic researcher named Ken Nelson from Denton, Texas — the first person to smoke the dried Bufo alvarius venom. In accordance with the written records, Hamilton credits Ken with inventing this strange practice and putting it on the map.
In the last few years, there has been a lot of well-intentioned discussion surrounding the harvesting of Bufo venom. Whether or not we should be doing so is the subject of much debate as conservationists continue to voice their concerns — and it’s easy to sympathize with their argument.
Frequently harvesting venom for human use can introduce fungal pathogens to the Bufo population that could compromise its ability to ward off predators, and ultimately threaten the survival of the species. Also, rounding up large knots of toads into small containers could be a sporulating ground for fungal infections, and puts them under considerable stress.
Not to mention the many roads and artificial roadside lights that have recently been built in Sonora in service of would-be psychedelic explorers. Attracted to insects, toads congregate around roadside lights and are sadly hit by passing vehicles.
This begs the question: Can smoking synthetic 5-MeO-DMT — a much more sustainable way of consuming the drug — occasion the same awe-inspiring experience?
Seasoned consumers contend that the “spirit of the toad” may be responsible for a qualitatively different experience. Others argue that there is an entourage effect, akin to smoked cannabis, where additional chemicals in the venom act synergistically to modulate the experience.
There is no evidence for this, however, and researchers hypothesize that any experiential differences between the two are most likely due to differences in dosage.
The little chemical comparisons that have been conducted so far suggest that synthetic 5-MeO-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT from Bufo venom are physically identical. They have the same melting point, the same boiling point, and behave the very same way chromatographically. Quite simply, they are the same chemical.
In a progressive move, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently decided to increase production quotas of 5-MeO-DMT to meet the United States’ estimated medical and scientific needs for 2022. Also, several biopharmaceutical companies have begun developing more sustainable ways of using “the God molecule” that don’t put Bufo Alvarius in danger of extinction and could expand access to the growing number of depressed patients in need of effective medicine.
There is no doubt that 5-MeO-DMT can be a powerful instrument for transformation when used safely, ethically, and with integrity. Epidemiological and case studies suggest that the reality-shattering, 5-MeO-DMT experience, said to transcend anything human beings can accurately convey through language, may have beneficial long-term effects on anxiety, depression, and alcohol-use disorder.
If ongoing clinical trials continue to demonstrate the drug’s profound healing potential, 5-MeO-DMT could soon become a therapeutic medicine for a wide variety of psychological disorders.
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