5-MeO-DMT molecule

In the late 2010s and early 2020s, hallucinogenic toad venom, known chemically as 5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine, DMT) or Bufo, became the drug of choice for people with money in search of the ultimate mind expansion experience and weird and wild drug adventure.. In his influential 2018 memoir, “How to Change Your Mind” ,Michael Pollan called to it the Everest of psychedelics. 5-MeO-DMT is related DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) found in the Amazon hallucinogen ayahuasca but is stronger, more intense and quicker acting. 5-MeO-DMT is also produced by some plant species in Latin America, where it has traditionally used in snuffs. [Source: Alex Kuczynski, Town & Country, January 20, 2022]

Alex Kuczynski wrote in Town & Country:“Tamer El-Shakhs, an owner of the chic Malibu dispensary 99 High Tide and a sommelier, if you will, of all things hallucinogenic, told me that just as Everest is a mountain you would climb only a few times in your life, Bufo is a drug you would not want to take more than a few times. “It is so intense, and the experience so total and so life-changing, that I don’t think you would want to do it — or need to do it — more than a couple of times,” he says.

Bufo is the venom of the Sonoran desert toad, Bufo alvarius. The molecule 5-MeO-DMT, one of the most potent psychotropic drugs ever discovered. Until recently it was so obscure the U.S. government did not list it as a controlled substance until 2011. Bufo generally comes in the form of crystals. “The crystals (typically a dose is 50 mg) are smoked in a glass pipe; participants are asked to inhale slowly for eight seconds and hold in the vapor for at least several seconds more. And then they enter a consciousness rocket ship ride. The effects are immediate and intense.

Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: “The practice, after decades of obscurity, is now entering the psychedelic mainstream. “If we were looking at popularity on a graph, the line was pretty close to the bottom for the past four decades,” Alan Davis, a clinical psychologist who studies psychedelics at Ohio State University, said. “That line has gone exponential.” In 2019, Mike Tyson said on Joe Rogan’s podcast that, ever since smoking toad, he’s “never been the same.” [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

Among other celebrities who have tried it are Chelsea Handler and reality TV star Christina Haack, who wrote about her Bufo experience in an Instagram post last July 2021, saying: “I had taken time off social, hired a spiritual coach, and smoked a Bufo toad (which basically reset my brain and kicked out years of anxiety in 15 mins).” Hunter Biden described it as a “salve” that helped him kick cocaine addiction.

Sonoran Desert Toad: Source of Psychedelic Toad Venom

Sonoran Desert Toad

Only one species of toad, the Sonoran Desert toad (Incilius alvarius or Bufo alvarius) is known to produce enough 5-MeO-DMT to deliver a powerful kick. Alex Kuczynski wrote in Town & Country: For nine months of the year the the Sonoran desert toad Sonoran desert toad lives under the sands of the Mexican desert to survive the scorching heat, but when the winter rains arrive, it emerges for a Caligula-like orgy of eating and fornicating. Glands on the sides of its neck and legs emit a venom so toxic it can cause death in a predator within seconds. Bufo hunters catch the toads at night using flashlights — the toads freeze when confronted by a bright light — then milk the venom from the toad’s parotid glands, typically holding a mirror up to catch the spray. Overnight, the milky venom dries on the glass, turning into flaky crystals, leaving behind only the 5-MeO-DMT and none of the lethal toxin. (The toads are allegedly unharmed.)

Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: “The Sonoran Desert toad, it is found in the arid borderlands between Mexico and the United States. Dogs sometimes die from ingesting the toad, and regional pet hospitals issue warnings about it. But, in the nineteen-sixties, an Italian pharmacologist published a chemical analysis of the toads’ skin, later inspiring Ken Nelson, a researcher from Texas, to conduct a series of daring experiments. He obtained the toads’ poison by squeezing, or “milking,” glands on their necks. (This process, which is not unlike popping a pimple, can be done without injuring the toad.) The poison dried into a crystalline substance, and Nelson realized that vaporizing it nullified its toxicity, producing one of the most powerful hallucinogenic agents on Earth. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

5-MeO-DMT has been called the “God Molecule.” In 2011, the U.S. banned it; it is also illegal in several other countries, including Germany and China. As with many other psychedelics, the compound can be synthesized in laboratories and is thought to be nonaddictive and low in toxicity; unlike with many other psychedelics, the trip is relatively short, typically lasting around thirty minutes. In contrast psilocybin can remain psychoactive for up to six hours. LSD longer.

Using Toad Venom

Alex Kuczynski wrote in Town & Country: “In Los Angeles, Tamer El-Shakhs, a marijuana entrepreneur, told me that dozens, if not hundreds, of ceremonies featuring ayahuasca, psilocybin, ibogaine, MDMA, and Bufo take place in Southern California every weekend. He introduced me to a friend of his, a hallucinogenic facilitator (who asked not to be named, since use of Bufo is illegal in the U.S.); she told me that she will conduct Bufo ceremonies for people coming out of trauma. Another facilitator told me she prefers a synthetic, lab-made version of Bufo, “mostly because it’s vegan.” (Remember, this was in L.A., where kosher LSD is also a thing. I’d really like to find the rabbi who blesses the LSD.) “A healer in California who has worked with what he describes as “American royalty,” told me Bufo is perhaps the most ideal form of hallucinogen.[Source: Alex Kuczynski, Town & Country, January 20, 2022]

“Most people who try Bufo describe a feeling of oceanic boundlessness, of oneness with the universe. They describe a high level of ego dissolution. Some describe a fusion with God, a visceral connection with the divine source of all life, and a sense of connection with all beings. From my one experience taking ecstasy, or MDMA, that all sounds par for the course for hallucinogenic drugs. (The next day I remember thinking, I felt one with the universe with that person? Sheesh.) [Source: Alex Kuczynski, Town & Country, January 20, 2022]

DMT vaporizer

“With Bufo, however, most users experience such a dissolution of the self and ego that they feel they are dead, or dying, that they exist in a blank space, and they slowly reemerge, to be born again, flushed of all their perceived flaws and addictions and no longer able to feel pain from past trauma. In Pollan’s book he says, “I felt an inexplicable urge to lift my knees, and as soon as I raised them, I felt something squeeze out from between my legs, but easily and without struggle or pain.”

“On a Joe Rogan podcast in 2019, Mike Tyson spoke about how Bufo had completely changed his life. “It’s almost like dying and being reborn… It’s almost like you’re dying, you’re submissive, you’re humble, you’re vulnerable — but you’re invincible still in all.” And in late 2021 Tyson told the New York Post that “in my trips, I’ve seen that death is beautiful.”

Toad venom is expensive and rare. Unlike an ayahuasca ceremony, during which you might spend hours hallucinating and vomiting and days recovering, the Bufo trip is intense but fast. Typically, participants in a Bufo ceremony are clearheaded within an hour. Many of the companies that lead tours outside the United States for the Bufo ceremony, such as Behold Retreats, limit groups to five people, with three facilitators.

Bufo Experience

Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: “Smoking toad has been likened, in one guide to psychedelics, to “being strapped to the nose of a rocket that flies into the sun and evaporates.” An account from the nineteen-eighties describes how, unlike most hallucinogens, which distort reality, toad “completely dissolves reality as we know it, leaving neither hallucinations nor anyone to watch them.” Pollan wrote that the “violent narrative arc” of his trip — terror and a sense of ego dissolution, culminating in relief and gratitude — “made it difficult to extract much information or knowledge from the journey.” [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

One user who took bufo for therapeutic reasons told Kuczynski that “within seconds of inhaling the Bufo, “all of a sudden I was seeing prisms and geometric shapes, and I felt like I was passing out, but not in a bad way. I started to drift into something; a different world was opening up.” [Source: Alex Kuczynski, Town & Country, January 20, 2022]

“Often, if users have experienced past trauma, they may start crying and screaming. “I suddenly felt this massive amount of rage come out of me,” she said, “and I came out punching and I wanted to attack him and punch him, and he said go ahead, let it out.” She did punch him. For a couple of weeks afterward, the ocean shimmered a little more brightly and the plants and flowers in her garden seemed to bloom more beautifully. “What it did was essentially open up a huge emotional vortex in me that allowed all of this rage and sorrow to pass through my body and out of my life forever.

A hallucinogenic facilitator in Los Angeles told me. “This is an experience that requires preparation and trust and intention. But you don’t always know what the Bufo will bring out in you. You don’t want to write a script before you get to the play... This is not a drug you’d use at a house party, like, ‘Hey, let me lose my ego here!’. “This is more about assuming you can ride a roller coaster and not die of fear but give in to the freedom. Then get off safely.” Even Pollan writes in his book that his own experience was “just horrible.”

“When I spoke with an intake specialist for Behold Retreats, a company that organizes various hallucinogenic retreats around the world, he asked me a number of questions about my health, especially my mental and cardiac health. (Because, frankly, I am now curious about trying Bufo. I’ve had my share of trauma over the past few years, and to have them sandblasted out of my system, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–style, seems irresistible.)

Octavio Rettig: the Pied Piper of Psychedelic Toads

Octavio Rettig

Octavio Rettig, a Mexican doctor and underground practitioner of 5-MeO-DMT and known to many simply as Octavio, is credited with popularizing toad venom as hallucinogen. Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: “In 2013, a charismatic Mexican doctor took the stage at Burning Man, in Nevada, to give a TEDx talk on what he called “the ultimate experience.” The doctor’s name would soon become known by his first name alone, like some pop diva or soccer star. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

He told the crowd that, years earlier, he had overcome a crack addiction by using a powerful psychedelic substance produced by toads in the Sonoran Desert. Afterward, he shared “toad medicine” with a tribal community in northern Mexico, where the rise of narco-trafficking had brought on a methamphetamine crisis. Through this work, he came to believe that smoking toad, as the practice is called, was an ancient Mesoamerican ritual — a “unique toadal language,” shared by Mayans and Aztecs — that had been stamped out during the colonial era. He announced that he’d restored a lost tradition, and that he had a duty to share it with others. “Sooner or later, everyone in the world will have this experience,” he told an interviewer after the talk.

At the time, Octavio, who was thirty-four, was virtually unknown within the world of psychedelics — as was smoking toad. But two years later Vice made him the subject of a laudatory documentary, calling him “a hallucinogenic-toad prophet.” (The film has more than three and a half million views on YouTube.) Octavio became, as Klaudia Oliver, the organizer of the TEDx talk, put it, “the Pied Piper of toad.” By Octavio’s count, he has introduced toad smoking to more than ten thousand people. When I first spoke with Octavio,” in 2021 “ he told me that his work was “the trigger for toad medicine to be spread all over the planet.”

A decade earlier, Octavio became addicted to crack i — a period that his mother described as “a living death.” She said that she bought a pharmacy for him to run, but he purloined the inventory to get high, losing the business. Then, in the summer of 2006,” his best friend and drug mate Gerardo” Sandoval introduced him to smoking toad, after hearing about it from two Americans who had come to Mexico in search of the substance. “As soon as I started to inhale these vapors, the cravings [for crack] started to vanish,” Octavio recalled. “The toad medicine, every single time, brought me back to the same place — inner peace, calmness, love.”

Octavio and Sandoval travelled to Sonora, where they gathered up hundreds of toads and emptied their glands onto glass plates. Octavio began smoking toad multiple times a day. Within eighteen months, he says, he was off crack, although he continued to smoke toad and cannabis. He began serving toad at outdoor raves, among addicts, and to his friends, often free of charge. He moved to Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, where he got a job as a general practitioner at a chain pharmacy, giving him access to a stream of potential toad clients. He told his brother that he was “doing research” with the toads. David recalled visiting Octavio’s apartment: “You would sit on a couch and a toad would jump out.” His family sensed a change in him. “When Octavio met sapito,” Bertha said, using the diminutive Spanish term for toad, “that’s when he found his mission.”

Tribe That Used to Use Toad Venom?

Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: “ Around the he discovered toad venom, “Octavio began to wonder if Native communities in Sonora had ever used toad medicine. Mexico is home to numerous shamanic rituals involving psychoactive substances, such as psilocybin and peyote; farther south, communities in the Amazon have been brewing ayahuasca for centuries. Although the most concentrated source of 5-MeO-DMT is the Sonoran Desert toad, the compound is also produced by some plant species in Latin America, where it was traditionally used in snuffs. One of Octavio’s uncles was an archeologist who had excavated Aztec artifacts, and his brother David was studying archeology, too. They told Octavio about a rich archive of iconography in Mesoamerica — pottery, paintings, pipes ornamented with toads. He became convinced that at least one of the tribes of Sonora had, at some point, performed rituals with toad. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

His hunch was seemingly confirmed in 2011, when he was introduced to the Seri, a remote tribe on the eastern shore of the Gulf of California. The tribe’s territory falls within a drug corridor to the U.S., and there had been an increase in addiction among its members. Octavio claimed that he served them toad, and that several tribal elders then began speaking of a lost tradition. “None of these tribes remembered that this toad contains this medicine,” Octavio said, at a psychology conference in 2017. The Seri authorized him as a practitioner of their traditional rituals, and they began calling him el doctor sapo, or “the toad doctor.”

For thousands of years, the Seri were nomadic, roaming in small groups along the coast. From the sixteenth century onward, they came into conflict with settlers. In 1850, the Sonoran government began paying bounties for murdered Seri people, and within a few decades the tribe had been reduced to around two hundred members. In the twentieth century, the Seri slowly rebounded, but they struggled to find a foothold in the modern economy.

When Octavio first came to Punta Chueca, a twon where many Seri lived, in 2011, Jesús Ogarrio was conducting an ethnographic study of Seri rituals for his undergraduate thesis. Ogarrio, who is now a professor, remembers Punta Chueca as a ghost town, with government houses on the verge of collapse, and its few public spaces overrun by meth addicts. He estimated that, of the roughly four hundred residents, dozens were addicts. “It was a pandemic of addiction,” Ogarrio said. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

The head of the Seri council of elders was a man named Antonio Robles, who spoke little Spanish and had at least two adult children who were addicted to meth. On Octavio’s first visit to the Seri, he served toad to one of Robles’s sons. Several tribal elders also tried the medicine, and some of them experienced penetrating visions. “When I had the toad, I remembered the history,” Pancho Barnett, whose late father was a venerated shaman in the community, told me. Cat stands on owner's head.

Robles signed formal letters and certificates declaring Octavio a “medicine man” and allowing him to serve toad to the tribe. Octavio moved to Punta Chueca., where he and Ogarrio — the only outsiders in the community — shared a room. Initially, Ogarrio found Octavio “credible and trustworthy,” he said. “He was there to help with a very grave issue.” The village had no basic medical services; here was a doctor, offering treatment. But Octavio smoked toad several times a day and often seemed irritable and anxious — “like an addict,” Ogarrio said. (Octavio denies this.) Ogarrio was also distressed by Octavio’s attitude toward people in the community. Many of them were afraid of toad, and Ogarrio said that on several occasions he watched Octavio serve toad without explaining what it was, or by presenting it as another drug. One day, Octavio slipped a toad pipe to another son of Robles’s, Ogarrio said. The man “started to go crazy,” he recalled, throwing furniture and then running toward the desert. (Octavio denies giving toad to Robles’s son, or to anyone else without the person’s consent.) The man’s meth addiction grew worse, leading to his death, in 2019.

There are also reasons to question the origin story, particularly as it relates to the Seri. Frogs and toads were ascribed a range of symbolic meanings in Mesoamerica, including death, rebirth, and the arrival of seasonal rains, which could explain why the animals were often depicted on pipes and other artifacts. Researchers on the Seri have recorded a rich set of medicinal and cultural traditions, and there is no clear evidence that toads were considered important, let alone sacred. In “People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians,” a classic text on Native Mexican ethnobotany, Richard Felger and Mary Moser argue that toads were “inconsequential in Seri culture.” A few Seri people I spoke with said that they’d heard stories of a secret ancient toad-smoking practice. But, as Alberto Mellado Moreno, a historian from the Seri tribe, said, “It’s speculative even for us. Consider a society reconstructed from so few survivors. It’s impossible to know what might have been lost.”

Octavio Retting’s Toad Venom Sessions

rape in the Amazon

Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: In the summer of 2021, “I met Octavio in Sonora, a state in northwest Mexico where Incilius alvarius is found. He wore a trucker hat with a toad on it — a gift from a Mexico City policeman who had recently smoked with him. “How are you, bro?” he asked, clasping my hand. He is tall, fair-skinned, and muscular, with sinuous forearms and long, tousled hair. He seems to pour energy into his interactions, as if willing the people around him into his orbit. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

Octavio had invited me to observe his toad-smoking sessions around the state. He serves toad to as many as twenty people at a time — “patients,” as he calls them. He tells everyone to show up sober and to fast for eight hours beforehand, and he charges roughly two hundred and fifty dollars a person. Octavio models his approach on shamanic rituals, though he acknowledges that this is highly interpretive, given that smoking toad is a “lost tradition.” He fills a glass pipe with flakes of toad secretion, lights it, and then instructs the patient to inhale deeply. As the substance takes effect, he picks up a wooden rattle and begins a series of Indigenous Mexican chants. “I could not do toad medicine without the chanting,” he once said.

Yet, for all this ceremony, the sessions can be unsettlingly casual. There is no restriction on bystanders’ watching, and some of them take videos that end up online. Octavio frequently smokes cannabis during sessions, leaving his patients in the care of assistants. Some people scream and writhe during their trips; others go still, or throw up, or become violent. People have had spontaneous orgasms. One day, I saw people film a woman who menstruated through her white shorts during a trip; later, she shared a photograph on Instagram of her and Octavio, adorned with an animated frog and the words “love you.”

At another session, “as the setting sun turned the clouds orange, I saw three boys approach Octavio. He used a pipe to blow rapé, a tobacco snuff from the Amazon, up their noses. The youngest boy, who was fourteen, immediately began throwing up. Before long, his companions were emptying their stomachs, too, and a pack of emaciated dogs gathered to lap up the vomit. A middle-aged woman arrived with rolls of toilet paper; two of the boys were her sons, she told me, wiping their mouths. The youngest was addicted to meth. She said that the family had travelled nearly a thousand miles, from Léon, in central Mexico, to smoke toad with Octavio, and that the rapé was necessary for purging toxins. Her husband, a lawyer with Seri face paint, stood nearby. Octavio came over and flung an arm around his shoulder. “Man, I love this guy,” Octavio said, his eyes streaming from a hit of rapé. “He just got me free on a manslaughter charge.” [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

In Bahía Kino, I saw one of his patients, who was left unattended after smoking toad, throw up, choke, and slam his forehead on the floor. In Punta Chueca, when the fourteen-year-old son of his defense lawyer refused more rapé, Octavio had started shouting at him. “Come on! Shut up! I don’t want to hear it, man. Come on,” he’d said, calling the boy cabrón. Another day, a boat took Octavio and a group to an uninhabited island a half hour from Punta Chueca. As the boat headed back to the mainland, Octavio began serving toad. One man lay on his back, thrashing his arms, as seawater splashed in his mouth.

During that session, Octavio launched into a rant. “Where are all these dead people they talk about?” he asked. “I’ve never walked around with a pistol killing people. I’ve never walked around with a toad drowning people.” His acolytes stood by, nodding. One was a man named Brian, from Sri Lanka, who had sold his home to travel with Octavio. (Previously, Brian had been a devotee of Osho, an Indian guru who inspired a cult movement.) Brian had purchased two expensive cameras and was using them to document Octavio’s work. One day in Punta Chueca, Octavio initiated an impromptu photo shoot, putting on a Seri-style jacket and striking various poses. Without warning, he sprinted toward us and leaped at Brian, knocking him off his feet. Everyone laughed uneasily. Octavio strode away for more photographs. Afterward, Brian found me and pulled down his sleeve, revealing a tattoo of Octavio on his shoulder. He whispered, “Whoever gives you the milk, the mother becomes.”

Deaths and Bad Trips on Toad Venom

Sometimes things can go terribly wrong. In 2020, a Spanish porno actor was charged with the murder of a fashion photographer during an ill-conceived Bufo ceremony. Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: Most people say that the experience is euphoric, even life-changing. But, for some, smoking toad can be nightmarish. The drug’s effects come on within seconds, and it’s easy for a novice user to become panicked, which can manifest in reactions such as high blood pressure or tachycardia. These can be dangerous for people with preëxisting conditions, which might be the case for those who are using toad after years of drug abuse. Some people also experience flashbacks, called reactivations, after a trip. “I’ve been waking up in fear like I’ve died — pure adrenaline, heart racing, hyperventilating,” a woman wrote in a support group on Facebook, ten days out from smoking toad. But researchers caution against inferring too much from any one subject’s experience; according to analyses of recent surveys, as many as three-quarters of users have reported these reactivations, with most of them describing the flashbacks as positive or neutral.[Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

Araceli Ramírez Hidalgo, a housewife from Léon, was susceptible to losing money in pyramid schemes. She fell into a prolonged depression. An ayahuasca practitioner later told the couple about toad medicine. “You just have one puff, you’re going to experience ten years of therapy,” Villalpando recalled him saying. When Ramírez heard that Octavio would be in town, she was eager to attend a session, which did on October 5, 2018 — and during she stopped breathing and later died.

Eyewitness accounts, gathered by justice officials, describe how the session unfolded: Ramírez inhaled toad from a pipe, and Octavio splashed water in her face and dosed her with rapé. Soon, she started convulsing. When she stopped breathing, Octavio began CPR. As Ramírez turned purple, Octavio grew frantic. Two participants heard him yell, “She died!” (Octavio denies this.) According to a deposition from Ramírez’s eldest son, she was still alive when she reached the hospital, but she died soon afterward. The official cause of death was an anaphylactic reaction to an unknown substance. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

There have been only a few public reports of deaths associated with 5-MeO-DMT. In the early two-thousands, a twenty-five-year-old man was found dead on a camping trip, with elevated levels of the substance in his body. Last year, Nacho Vidal, a porn star from Spain best known for selling candles made from a mold of his penis, was charged with reckless homicide after allegedly presiding over a toad-medicine ceremony in Valencia, at which there was a fatality. (Vidal maintains his innocence, and the case has been put on hold.) By the time Ramírez died, in 2018, at least two other people had died shortly after smoking toad with Octavio. During a talk that year, Octavio said that an elderly patient of his had died, a few years earlier, after taking toad. “I think this person had a beautiful opportunity to transcend in love and in light,” Octavio said. He also mentioned the death of another patient — an alcoholic in his forties who had a pulmonary embolism during a toad session. Octavio blamed the man’s unhealthy life style.

In December, 2012, before Octavio rose to fame, a woman in her twenties named Ana Patricia Arredondo, widely thought to be his girlfriend, disappeared after going on a walk with him. Divers later recovered her body from an underground body of water. Odily Fuentes, a friend of Octavio’s at the time, said he told her that he’d smoked toad with Arredondo before she went missing. (Octavio denies this; he also denies that Arredondo was his girlfriend.)

Toad Venom Treatment

In recent years, researchers have become interested in its potential therapeutic applications of toad vem. Alex Kuczynski wrote in Town & Country: “In 2019, Johns Hopkins scientists published a paper titled “Fast-Acting Psychedelic Associated with Improvements in Depression/Anxiety,” in which they described a lessening of anxiety and depression when Bufo was given in a ceremonial group setting. Approximately 80 percent of the participants reported improvements in anxiety and depression after a Bufo session. These improvements were related to “more intense acute mystical effects during the 5-MeO-DMT experience, as well as increases in rating of the personal meaning and spiritual significance of the experience.” Improvements were also related to stronger beliefs that the experience contributed to enduring well-being and life satisfaction. [Source: Alex Kuczynski, Town & Country, January 20, 2022]

“I spoke to a close friend about her experience with Bufo. She had severe childhood trauma beyond what most of us experience and has spent several years dealing with personal health issues. “I finally decided talk therapy wasn’t enough,” she told me. She invited a facilitator to New York, and for a week he prepared her for the “ceremony” by having her take a mild hallucinogen twice before her DMT trip and learn breathing techniques to keep herself calm during the experience. And by setting her intentions. “He spent a lot of time with me before I did it,” she said. “He connected with me and grounded me, and I felt like he prepared me well for the experience. This is not something you would want to do with someone who is unfamiliar with the drug.” After the bufo experience she said: “It was like doing 30 years of therapy in two weeks.” She kept going to see the psychiatrist who had been treating her for depression for a year and a half after the experience. “He said, ‘Wow, you’re doing amazingly. You do not have depression.’ It was a huge energetic shift.”

Kimon de Greef wrote in The New Yorker: Ohio State’s“Davis believes that 5-MeO-DMT might be administered more cheaply, and to more patients, than substances such as psilocybin, which can remain psychoactive for up to six hours. In 2018, Davis published a survey in the Journal of Psychopharmacology of some five hundred 5-MeO-DMT users. Of the two hundred and eighty-three respondents who struggled with substance abuse, roughly sixty percent claimed that their condition had improved — around double the percentage that report improvement after more conventional therapies. Davis acknowledged that these findings could be biased toward positive outcomes: people who have had bad experiences may be less likely to participate in research. But after surveying fifty-one military veterans at a clinic in Mexico, where the drug is unregulated, Davis came away with an even stronger sense that the substance may have healing benefits. At the clinic, which is run by the psychedelic researcher Martín Polanco, veterans took 5-MeO-DMT and ibogaine, a hallucinogen originally derived from a central-African plant. Davis and his colleagues found “significant and very large reductions” in suicidal thoughts, cognitive impairment, and P.T.S.D. symptoms among participants. The first laboratory study of 5-MeO-DMT in a human subject also involved a patient of Polanco’s — an Air Force veteran who suffered from P.T.S.D. and alcoholism. Brain scans before and after treatment with 5-MeO-DMT and ibogaine showed changes in neural activity in regions of the brain that are associated with alcohol abuse. Three months in, the veteran had stopped drinking heavily. [Source: Kimon de Greef, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022]

There are many theories for why psychedelics might help treat addiction. A 2015 review of clinical research into hallucinogens highlighted “the role of mystical or other meaningful experiences as mediators of therapeutic effects.” Some clinical researchers believe that psychedelics, by provoking a dramatic shift in consciousness, can help people reprocess traumatic memories, arrive at new insights, and undergo profound and lasting changes in mood. And 5-MeO-DMT, as Polanco put it, is “the most reliably mystical of the psychedelics.”

A few years ago, Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, a Texas-based nonprofit, began sponsoring 5-MeO-DMT and ibogaine treatments for veterans at health centers in Mexico. A host of biotechnology companies are now working on treatments that use 5-MeO-DMT. One British firm has raised more than a hundred million dollars in venture capital for developing, among other therapies, a 5-MeO-DMT intranasal treatment for depression. Yet even some clinical researchers who find the substance promising are wary of expanding access before it is better understood. “Everything in the beginning looks like it works really, really well,” Walter Dunn, a member of the F.D.A.’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee, told me. “But, once you run the big trials and you expose it to a broad swath of the population, those benefits always come down.” And then, he noted, you start seeing the range of adverse reactions. A handful of clinical trials are currently under way, and key questions — about optimal dosage, interactions with other medications, and so on — remain hotly debated. Meanwhile, among the many dozens of underground practitioners serving toad medicine and its synthetic equivalent, Octavio remains the most visible, and also the most divisive.

Polanco, who was introduced to toad by a former patient of Octavio’s, told me, “I owe my work with toad medicine indirectly to him.” But many researchers and toad practitioners also expressed grave concerns about Octavio’s approach, which includes serving toad to as many people as possible. As Polanco told me,5-MeO-DMT can induce “a kind of ontological shock.” He sometimes warns his patients, “This can cure P.T.S.D. — or it can cause it.”

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Octavio Rettig from Octavio Retting website, last image ethneonation

Text Sources: The New Yorker, Town & Country magazine, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Last updated April 2022

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