Bufo alvarius: A Controversial Psychedelic Toad

Nov 12, 2018 | English

Miroslav Horák

Miroslav Horák

Social and cultural anthropologist

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Elizabeth Mateos

Elizabeth Mateos

Ph.D. Candidate in history and etnohistory

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Ali Cortina

Ali Cortina

MA Candidate

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The use of Bufo alvarius/Incilius alvarius Girard, colloquially called “toad” is considered as one of the practices that currently enjoys high popularity among users of psychedelics. However, from this subculture it also expands towards other sectors of society becoming an attraction for tourists or a method of professional and personal development for entrepreneurs.

The secretion produced by parotid glands situated in the neck, the curve of the elbow and the groin of B. alvarius constitutes of several chemical compounds. 21 alkaloids have been found between them. From those 11 tryptamines, where the 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltriptamine (5-MeO-DMT) prevails as it may be present between 10% and 15% in total (Sandoval, 2018). 5-MeO-DMT, the main reason for utilization of this toad may be classified as psychedelic substance, entheogen or hallucinogen (Araújo et al., 2015).

Facilitators, who administer B. alvarius at international level in various settings, collect this species in its provenance land: the desert of Sonora. According to Fouquette (1968), the toad lives in the South of Arizona, in the North of Sonora, in the border of California and Arizona and in the west of New Mexico.

The B. alvarius has been used globally. Nevertheless, it has not been studied historically. Despite this fact, the facilitators use concepts as “ancestral medicine” and “traditional rituals” to promote their activities, to attract participants and give them a sense of authenticity.

For a long time, it had been speculated that the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica have been using B. marinus (not B. alvarius) for their rituals in order to get into an altered state of consciousness. However, Weil & Davis (1994) clarified that historically nobody has demonstrated how the chemical compounds of the poisonous secretion of B. marinus could be neutralized to allow the users experiment a psychoactive effect. The glands produce bufotenin (5-OH-DMT), a methylated derivate of serotonin, as well as bufotoxin and bufogenin, which are highly toxic cardiac glucosides (Meyer & Linde, 1971).

Therefore, B. alvarius is the only species discovered in this genus which possess of an unusual enzyme, O-methyltransferase, that among other reactions transforms 5-OH-DMT in 5-MeO-DMT (McBride, 2000).

In any case, to distinguish between B. marinus and B. alvarius may lead to a taxonomic problem. It is impossible to recognize these two species in ancient iconographic representations and sculptures as the species share similar features morphologically.

Clinically, the psychoactive effects of 5-OH-DMT have been only demonstrated by intravenous or intramuscular way of administration. Nevertheless, these were unknown to American shamans. It was also impossible to either inhale it or insufflate it through the nose (Torres & Repke, 2014).

Considering the way B. alvarius is used currently, the toad is not eaten or licked. In this way, the toxines would be activated. According to Lyttle (1993), they can be absorbed directly by mucous membranes of the mouth. For this reason, the secretion is smoked by a pipe or it is inhaled from a vaporizer (Metzner, 2013), although there are some risks when used in this way.

In the case of 5-MeO-DMT, “the general dose range” is 6-20 mg (Trachsel, 2000; Schulgin & Schulgin, 1997). The amount of this substance in the secretion can vary, thus it is complicated to calculate the effective dose and it may cause unexpected effects to inexperienced users.

Another type of danger is in the abusive attitude of the facilitator who directs the session. Short documentaries in social media sometimes show how they use electric shocks, apply water to the nose of people in trance or behave in violent and coercive manner. Likewise, it is dangerous to combine other psychoactive preparations like ayahuasca or iboga with the toad (ICEERS, 2017).

It is dangerous to combine other psychoactive preparations like ayahuasca or iboga with the toad.

Detailed instructions how to prepare the secretion for administration were published for the first time by Most (1984), the founder of The Church of the Toad of Light that considers the secretion a sacrament. For this reason, it can be argued that smoking of the toad secretion is a completely modern invention.

By the eighties, this practice began to have a central place in New Age groups linked to psychonautics (Orsolini et al., 2018; Stuart, 2002). Nevertheless, it had not been popularized and medialized until it was linked to indigenous ethnic groups of the Sonora desert in Mexico.

In 2011, it was introduced to the members of Comca’ac of Punta Chueca by the intermediation of a Sonoran civil organization from Hermosillo. It was done by members related to cultural management, humanities, art, and psychonautics (now OTA.C. Foundation). Due to the problematic situation in which the indigenous cultures of Sonora live, the OTA.C Foundation collaborated with the doctor Rettig Hinojosa, to rehabilitate some membersfrom the methamphetamine (crack) addiction by the administration of toad secretion (Rettig Hinojosa, 2014; Ogarrio Huitrón, 2012). Nevertless, this project may be considered unsuccessful, due to the fact that the expected results have not been achieved (Odily Fuentes, personal communication). Currently, the smoking of “toad medicine” has been extended to different sociocultural contexts. Its occurrence may be observed among members (or people that present themselves as descendants) of ethnic groups from the Sonora desert, e.g. Comca’ac, Yaqui, Tohono o’odham, and Maya. These have appropriated the toad and made it a central element of their cultural and economic activities. It is accessible in multiple ritual, therapeutic, as well as psychonautic urban spaces. These spaces are intimately interconnected, and characterized in terms of cultural hybridization.

No literary evidence exists about the traditional use of B. alvarius ritual.

The results of our research indicate that no literary evidence exists on the traditional (invariant and formalized) use of B. alvarius. This fact is supported by other authors (Gómez Álvarez, 2005). In this way, it can be concluded that the recently organized sessions are the product of an invention. The secretion does not have medicinal properties confirmed by any relevant peer reviewed, large scale, double blind, placebo-controlled study. Therefore, it is impossible to consider it as a “medication”. There is a fieldwork implemented on an international level necessary to deepen the knowledge about the benefits of B. alvarius utilization. Regardless of that, the users should treat this member of animal kingdom ethically.

We opine that, the extraction of secretion is required to be carried out without any damage to the toad. Also, B. alvarius should be considered as a species in a critical danger of extinction. Toad populations have rapidly decreased in the US territory, concentrating mainly in the Altar desert. Several factors causing this situation may be identified: the global climate change; the expansion of human settlements that empowers of the natural desert; the extensive use of pesticides and other chemicals; introduced species that compete for hatcheries and take advantage of toad eggs; and poaching. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species should be updated in relation to B. alvarius, because the interest in its use is increasing rapidly (Hammerson & Santos-Barrera, 2004).


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Miroslav Horák

Miroslav Horák

Social and cultural anthropologist

Miroslav Horák (1981, Zlín, Czech Republic), social and cultural anthropologist, ecologist and linguist. He specializes in ethnobotany and phytotherapy. Currently works as a research assistant at the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies, Faculty of Regional Development and International Studies, Mendel University in Brno. In his research on drug addiction treatment in cross-cultural perspective, he compares therapeutic programs in Peru, Nicaragua and the Czech Republic. He focuses on spirituality in addiction treatment, retention of inpatients in therapeutic communities and their motivation. For this purpose, he has implemented a number of projects. Traditional medicine of the Amazon is a subject of his professional interests since 2007. He is the author and editor of several books, eg. The House of Song (2013), A Reader in Ethnobotany and Phytotherapy (2014) or Etnobotánica y Fitoterapia en América (2015). Since 2017 works as a volunteer in Social Media Team of Chacruna.net. He is a member of the Czech Psychedelic Society.

Elízabeth Mateos

Elízabeth Mateos

Ph.D. Candidate in history and etnohistory

Elizabeth Mateos Segovia, MSc, is a Ph. D. candidate in history and ethnohistory at the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH) in Mexico. She carries out research on ethnobotany, shamanism, agricultural rituals, and mythical geography among the Nahuas from the Southeast of Puebla.