Update on the Fight for Religious Liberties in Oregon

By Jon Dennis, Esq.

A progress update on the Oregon Health Authority, Measure 109, and religious liberty.

It turns out a whole lot of people care about religious and spiritual freedom issues surrounding psilocybin. A few weeks ago, Oregon had two public hearings on its proposed psilocybin rules on products, testing, and facilitator training. The overwhelming majority of the public testimony received was in support of religious freedom, affordable access, and the community container for psilocybin service. The support was so overwhelming during the first meeting that I tried to keep tabs on the second meeting. I counted 31 total comments that were received. 24 of those 31 – or 74%! – voiced support for the adoption of the entheogenic practitioners framework for safely regulating community-based practice. I do not believe a single person testified in opposition to its adoption. 

Additionally, we are starting to receive written comments that people and organizations have submitted to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, has published his comments to OHA about the proposed rules, in which he recommends adopting the proposal in whole and even making some of the provisions around safe, affordable ceremony applicable to the entire M109 program. You can read his statement here.   

The Entheogenic Practitioners Council of Oregon created a petition for people to sign to show support for the Oregon effort. At the time of this writing, the petition has received 517 signatures and many poignant comments. One person who has signed the petition and commented is William Richards, Ph.D., the legendary psychedelic researcher from Johns Hopkins and author of Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. He wrote: 

Concisely: (1) Psilocybin in mushrooms or as synthesized substance provides access to many different states of human awareness, some powerfully facilitative of psychological and/or spiritual development; (2) The safety and probability of benefit are best ensured when preparation/education is provided in the context of a supportive relationship or community, either in a framework of mental health or of religious care; (3) When wisely integrated into our culture, psilocybin may well significantly decrease human suffering and promote the fuller realization of values such as peace, respect for diversity and compassion; (4) Access to this molecular tool for those who desire it, whether in medical or religious contexts, may be seen as a fundamental human right to explore our own minds. 

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The Psychedelics Bar Association’s Religious Use Committee has also released a statement, in which it asks OHA to reevaluate its draft rules and accommodate the needs of religious practitioners:

“Currently, no state or federal law protects religious communities or practitioners who utilize psilocybin from being prosecuted by Oregon law enforcement. As charitable non-profit organizations, most if not all of these communities and practitioners lack the resources to hire attorneys to secure their rights. Measure 109 promised to welcome these communities into a legitimate legal framework. However, we believe that some of the proposed rules for implementing Measure 109 would substantially burden such communities and force them to operate illegally while remaining in the shadows.”

It also points out the following: “We note nearly half (49%) of the respondents to your Community Interest Survey indicated that their interest in accessing psilocybin under Measure 109 was for spiritual purposes. For context, the interest in spirituality ranks higher than interest in psilocybin for trauma-related issues (47%), addiction and substance use (17%), end of life psychological distress (10%), or “other” reasons (9%).”

It also offers some legal analysis to show that, based on the language of M109, Oregon has the legal rulemaking authority to protect religious practice. Here’s just one example:

“…Subsection (C) empowers the OHA to regulate the use of psilocybin products and psilocybin services ‘for other purposes’ deemed necessary or appropriate by the authority. The phrase ‘for other purposes’ indicates that the OHA may create rules that achieve purposes that are not explicitly stated in sections 3 to 129 or implied from them. This too means that OHA can create rules for the purposes of accommodating religious practice.”

You can view or download their full statement here:

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The Entheogenic Practitioners Council of Oregon has also released its public comment letter to the Oregon Health Authority.

Affordable access to psychedelic healing is perhaps a wholly new equity issue that touches on racial, health, and spiritual equity. Equity means affordable access. Lack of affordability reinforces inequity that exists around race, gender, and class lines. We believe access to psychedelics to be a means of promoting spiritual equity, that we not create “spiritual privilege” as a function of socio-economic privilege. Equity also means culturally-sensitive. It must not impose Western medical paradigms on non- Western approaches to psilocybin.

You can view or download their full statement here:

The Oregon Health Authority will be publishing its written summary of the public comments soon. Stay tuned to hear how Oregon responds to the public outcry to protect religious and spiritual communities!

For those who have been following closely, a revised edition of the proposal for the entheogenic practitioners framework can be viewed/downloaded here.

Please note that we are continually striving to improve upon this document and welcome feedback on how we can make aboveground entheogenic practice safe and affordable for all. 

To learn more about the movement to protect religious freedom and community access under Measure 109, see: Eyes on Oregon, The Entheogenic Practitioner’s Council of Oregon website, or my earlier article that summarized the beginnings of this fight, “Religious Practice Under Oregon Measure 109.” 

Additionally, Eyes on Oregon will be changing shape over the coming month, from a somewhat sporadic web series into a more traditional and more regularly-released podcast. I will be hosting and interviewing various people from the frontlines in Oregon, with Joe joining when he is able. With so much happening, there’s a lot to talk about, and we hope you tune in.

About the Author

Jon Dennis, Esq.is a principal and consultant with Psychedelics Now and an Oregon lawyer. He is the co-host of a Psychedelics Today podcast series called Eyes on Oregon, which follows the developments in Oregon’s psilocybin rulemaking process. He has a law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School and a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Kansas.

Psychedelics Today Has Hit 3 Million Downloads!

By Victoria Dekker and Mike Alexander

This week, we celebrated a humbling achievement at Psychedelics Today: three million unique downloads of the Psychedelics Today podcast!

This milestone couldn’t come at a more fitting time. It seems like the stars are aligning and shining a spotlight on progress in psychedelics, with Bicycle Day and the kickoff of our new, 12-month practitioner training program, Vital, both occurring in a 48-hour window last week. Amidst it all, the podcast download counter kept going, and rolled over to an incredible three million just a few days later. We couldn’t be more grateful to all our listeners who enjoy, support, and engage with the podcast. You’ve helped Psychedelics Today get to where we are simply by tuning in. 

Psychedelics Today has also achieved the #9 rank of all Apple Life Sciences podcasts in the United States, and it stands alone as the only psychedelics-themed podcast in the Top 100 list!

When it comes to podcast guests, we’ve been lucky over the years. Our team has recorded with many world-renowned figures in psychedelic science, culture, and advocacy. But from the day we started recording in 2016, we wanted the Psychedelics Today podcast to be more than a platform for well-known figures. 

Intentionally, we’ve made ample space for conversations with people who are quietly doing important work behind the scenes, too. Because this is an area of great complexity and one in which experience matters, the Psychedelics Today podcast is designed to give listeners a richness in perspective they won’t find anywhere else. 

Thank you for taking the time to listen to us. We are humbled by your support and your willingness to listen to all that we and our guests have to say – which, over the past six years, has been more than a mouthful.

Looking for some essential listening? These are the Top 8 most downloaded Psychedelics Today podcasts of all-time, and some of our favorite discussions:

Joe had been raving about Dr. Carl Hart’s Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear for months before we were able to get him on, and the nearly 2-hour conversation shows just how much Hart’s views align with ours: that the drug war is doing exactly what those in power created it for, that drug exceptionalism and only seeing one path towards progress is limiting, that our job is to use facts and logic to battle inaccuracies and people clearly pushing a false narrative, and that drugs can be fun and coming out of the closet about responsible drug use only opens up the dialogue more.

This is one of Kyle’s favorites, since it highlighted so much about cognitive liberty and failed drug policy – two ideas central to the Psychedelics Today ethos. And it may be Joe’s favorite episode: “That was a scary one, because I wanted to do it so well and I respect him so much, that I’m like, ‘Can we do this well?’ And we did. So please check that one out. That one’s really important to me.”

“When these people say that they are worried about drug addiction or [that] what I’m saying might increase drug addiction, that’s some bullshit distraction. If you’re really worried about the negative effects of drug addiction, you would make sure everybody in your society is working. You’d make sure they all have health care. You’d make sure that basic needs were handled. Because if you did those things, you don’t have to worry about drug addiction.”

Manesh Girn is a Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at McGill University and co-author of over a dozen scientific publications, most recently on the neurocognitive processes behind creative thinking and the potentiality for psychedelics to enhance creativity. He’s been on the podcast twice, runs a YouTube channel called The Psychedelic Scientist, and is now part of the Vital faculty as well.

This one went deep into a lot of neuroscience; covering neuroplasticity, the similarities between psychedelic mind states and dream states, distinctions in creativity, how psilocybin can affect creativity, and the complicated idea of ego dissolution: Do we really understand what it is? Do ego death and a mystical experience always have to go hand-in-hand?

“Other research has exclusively linked psychedelic experiences to the dream state, and seeing that they’re phenomenologically similar. There’s a lot of overlap in a number of different ways of looking at it. So then, on the basis of that, I was like, ok, so if we conceptualize psychedelics as almost being like dreaming (but awake), then that could be a great source of novel ideas and creative ideas because you’re now in this mental state that’s unconstrained by logic, it’s unconstrained by a need to make sense, and you can get this more free flow of ideas.”

Before Michelle was a member of the PT team and featured in many solidarity Friday episodes (and a follow-up to this episode on Magic Mushroom day), we just knew her as an extremely knowledgeable mushroom connoisseur and the author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, an easy-to-use guide to understanding magic mushrooms, trips, microdosing, and psychedelic therapy. Reflecting back, Joe said: “Michelle saw that there [weren’t] really great resources for people and put this book together. …I actually don’t know of anything better that’s mushroom-specific, still to this day.”

In the episode, she tells her story and why she wanted to write the book, which she also talked a lot about on Solidarity Friday episodes: that despite what many mainstream minds will tell you, there isn’t one right way to use psilocybin.

“As long as you’re being safe with your surroundings and with yourself, any way is the right way.”

In this episode, Joe interviewed computational neurobiologist, pharmacologist, chemist, and writer, Dr. Andrew Gallimore; one of the world’s most knowledgeable researchers on DMT. They discussed all things DMT, from entity encounters to his intravenous infusion model, which would allow a timed and steady release of DMT to induce an extended-state DMT experience – the goal being to slowly make that space more stable (and comprehensible) over time, to eventually live in the DMT space as you would in this reality. “We’ve nerded out and talked about the extended state DMT stuff for a bit. That’s highly fascinating,” said Kyle.

Gallimore was featured later in a unique podcast with Dr. Peter Sjöstedt-H, where they discuss Sjöstedt-H’s critique of Gallimore’s book, Alien Information Theory: Psychedelic Drug Technologies and the Cosmic Game.

“We know how the brain learns to construct worlds, but we don’t know how the brain learns to construct DMT worlds.”

In this episode, Joe and Kyle finally got to interview legendary author and microdosing popularizer, James Fadiman, Ph.D. Fadiman talked about transpersonal psychology, microdosing and how it emerged, how researchers are finally starting to look at brain waves of microdosers, and his newest book, Your Symphony of Selves: Discover and Understand More of Who We Are, which says that we are all made up of different selves which take lead depending on the situation.

Kyle (who has an undergraduate degree in transpersonal psychology) lists this as one of his favorites, as Fadiman laid out the emergence of transpersonal psychology and the early days of the Transpersonal Association: “I think one of my favorite parts about this was just exploring some of the history of transpersonal psychology. It was really cool to chat with him about that.” Joe added: “He was there. He is named as one of the 4, 5 people, in a sense ‘in the room’ when this came about. He’s got a lot of connection to this stuff.”

“The secret of microdosing is if you’re noticing it, that’s a little too high a dose. …The perfect definition of a microdose is: You have a really good day; you get things done that you’ve been putting off; you’re nice to someone at work who doesn’t deserve it; after work, you do one more set of reps at the gym than you usually do; you really enjoy your kids; and at the end of the day, you say, ‘Oh, I forgot I had a microdose.’”

In this episode, Joe interviewed Wade Davis: Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, explorer, ethnobotanist, star of the recent documentary, “El Sendero de la Anaconda,” and author of several books, including the bestseller, The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Davis discussed his history with Richard Evans Schultes, the strange phenomenon behind the growth of ayahuasca, Haitian zombies, Voodoo, and Colombia and its relationship with cocaine and coca. This one covered a lot of ground other podcasts haven’t, and it was awesome to have him on, as Joe called him “possibly the most famous person on the show, other than number 1.”

“This quest for individual health and healing, for individual enlightenment, individual growth – which, at some level, is completely understandable, but it is also a reflection, in good measure, of our own culture of self; the ongoing center of narcissism, the idea that one’s purpose in life is to advance one’s own spiritual path or one’s own destiny – that is, in my experience, very much not what is going on in the traditional reaches of the northwest Amazon, where the plant (the medicine) both originated, but also, where today, it’s taken very much as a collective experience, such that the ritual itself becomes a prayer for the continuity and the wellbeing of the people themselves – where you’d never even think of this in terms of Self or I.”

In this episode, Kyle and Joe interviewed Chris Bache, author of LSD and the Mind of the Universe: Diamonds from Heaven. Bache talked about music in psychedelic sessions, the debate on whether facilitators should have experiences before helping others, and the five levels of the universe as he understands them. But he mostly discussed what he learned about psychedelics, the universe, and integration from going through 73 high-dose LSD sessions (after which, he doesn’t recommend working with high doses).

Looking back, Joe said, “I think the most important part are his lessons learned and like, ‘What would you have done if you knew what you knew now? What would your protocol have been?’ I think that’s a big deal. [There’s] no way for him to go back in time but we can all learn from what he did.”

“We are moving toward a collective wake up, it’s not a personal experience, it’s a collective experience – an evolution of our species.”

While most of these episodes have been in the Top 8 for a while, we knew James Fadiman would likely end up here pretty quickly. And we were all certain that it would take no time at all for Hamilton Morris’ episode to take the top spot (also by far our most-viewed YouTube video, even though we weren’t even able to record video for the episode). How could it not take the top spot? From his work with Vice, Morris has become the go-to media consultant around psychedelics, and specifically new psychedelics, as many consider him to be the next Sasha Shulgin.

While they discussed what you’d expect (including his controversial 5-MeO-DMT episodes of “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia”), this episode is especially notable because it’s the first time Morris had really publicly talked about his relationship with Compass Pathways – a development seen as problematic by many in the space, but a relationship that’s helping him create massive amounts of new compounds week after week.

This was an in-person recording, as Joe traveled to the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia to meet him, and they recorded just outside Morris’ lab. “It was fun,” Joe said. “[I’m] really grateful for Hamilton spending time talking to us and going into some of these fun topics.”

“Yes, there are very serious differences between [psychedelics and other drugs], but if we fall into the same moral binary, then we’re ultimately no better than people that think that the distinction between licit and illicit drugs is a pharmacologically or medically meaningful distinction.”

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Psychedelics Today Team Recommendations

The members of the team who have been here the longest (and therefore listened to years worth of episodes) talked about some of our favorite episodes as well, and we thought it’d be cool to share which ones we liked the most.

Joe’s picks:

Having been involved in the majority of episodes, Joe was a bit overwhelmed with this question. Dr. Carl Hart’s episode was the first he mentioned, but these were some he particularly liked as well:

“Leonard Pickard just came out. That was extraordinary for me. I don’t know how it listens as a podcast, but I loved his story.”

Kyle’s picks:

Kyle’s top 3 have already been mentioned: Dr. Carl Hart, James Fadiman, Ph.D., and Stan and Brigitte Grof.

“Grof’s work has been at the foundation of PT, so this episode felt like a huge milestone for us and I’m so grateful for Stan and Brigitte’s time,” said Kyle. “One thing I really enjoyed about this episode was hearing what Grof’s vision is for the future of psychedelics.” A few others he really enjoyed were more recent:

Marisa’s picks:

In addition to managing several projects, Marisa handles most of our social media, our affiliate programs, and contributes a lot of art and graphics. Marisa wrote the show notes for each episode up until June of 2020. “There are so many episodes that I love, but the ones that make me feel are the ones that resonate.” She particularly loved these three:

“These episodes stand out to me because they are extremely moving stories of how psychedelics have the power to heal, leaving me in tears of inspiration.”

Rob’s picks:

Other than the very early episodes, every episode of Psychedelics Today sounds much better than it originally did because of Rob’s work. In addition to being our main audio engineer, he’s helped with video on many courses at our Psychedelic Education Center. The episodes that came to him right away were:

Mike’s picks:

I didn’t listen to many episodes before (sorry, Joe), but since I took over writing the show notes in June of 2020, I’ve listened to every one. Dr. Carl Hart was also one of my favorites, and although it was hard to listen to, I strongly recommend the same Dena Justice episode Marisa picked. Other than those, the ones that stand out to me are the episodes that make me think of things differently or present opposing viewpoints to what we’re used to. A few that instantly come to mind are:

Between our regular Tuesday episodes and different Friday episodes (Solidarity Fridays and Vital Psychedelic Conversations), there are over 400 episodes of Psychedelics Today to listen to. And the best news of all? With that many episodes and three million downloads now under our collective belt, we’re just getting started.

Keep listening, and we’ll keep bringing you psychedelic conversations that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Follow the Psychedelics Today Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen. Have an idea for a podcast theme or guest? Was there a guest that blew your mind who you want to hear from again? Do you have feedback about how we can make the show better? Connect with our team on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or by email at info@psychedelicstoday.com

Could the Sonoran Desert Toad Cure Narcissism?

Sonoran desert toad

By Erica Rex

The continued exploitation of this fragile species for its DMT encapsulates narcissism itself.

Until recently, the Sonoran desert toad, Incilius alvarius (formerly Bufo alvarius) was not on my wildlife-watch radar. Then an email from the owner of a group of psychedelic retreat centers operating in Latin America, Portugal, and the Netherlands brought the greenish brownish warty native of the Sonoran desert to my attention. He was writing to let me know that the personality disorder of narcissism, the toxic world-killer which has brought life on Earth to an environmental and climatological precipice, could be cured – with psychedelics. Specifically with “Toad Venom.”

“With expert guidance and facilitation, psychedelics can help us… be collectively healthy, happy, and harmonious in the stewardship of our planet,” he wrote.

Curious, I clicked on a link for a “Transformational Bufo Alvarius Retreat (5-MeO-DMT, Toad Venom).” According to the ad, “5-MeO-DMT, also known as the sacred toad medicine, is a beautiful teacher that can lead to profound transformation when facilitated by experienced guides,” and they would be offering dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in its 5-MeO-DMT – toad form – as the chemically mediated gateway to this process.

As something of an expert in identifying displays of cognitive dissonance, the suggestion that exploiting a toad in the interest of curing Homo sapiens of his most reprehensible trait was not sneaking past my cognitive threshold.

Toads, Poaching, and Indigenous Use

I love amphibians. I always have. When I lived in Kenya as a teenager, the red legged Hyperolius viridiflavus flashed from reed to reed in the dam below the house; on a trip to Madagascar, I observed the tomato frog, Dyscophys antongilii, sequestered in a storm drain in a village; near my former home in the Sierra Nevadas, the mountain yellow-legged frog, Rana muscosa chirped in mountain lakes every spring. 

Worldwide, amphibians are the most threatened class of vertebrates on the planet. Although thought to be abundant in its home range of the Mexican state of Sonora and parts of Arizona, the Sonoran desert toad is on endangered species lists in both California and New Mexico. In Arizona, a fishing license grants collection of up to ten live Sonoran toads. Shipping them to another state or abroad is illegal and prosecutable, as is possession of the psychedelic 5-MeO-DMT.

Prohibition against toad possession has not stopped poachers though. In Arizona, poachers were caught on camera dumping toads into plastic bags in a wildlife conservation area.

Increased toad poaching and illegal transport across state borders and the US-Mexico border has recently triggered the Lacey Act, which prohibits import, export, sale, acquisition or purchase of fish, wildlife or plants transported, or sold in violation of US, Indian or international law. Law enforcement agents for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) confirmed they are currently carrying out an investigation. Whether their efforts are successful in reducing illegal trade remains to be seen.

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DMT is a trace neurotransmitter found in mammalian lungs and brains, as well as in numerous plant species. The DMT molecule was first synthesized in a lab in 1931 by Canadian chemist, Richard Manske. Its natural occurrence in plants was not confirmed in Western science until microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima did a biochemical study of Mimosa hostilis in 1946 after observing the Indigenous Pancuro Tacarutu (Brazil) ceremonially drinking an intoxicating brew* called vinho da jurema distilled from the plant’s root bark. In 1956, Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist, Stephen Szara extracted DMT from Mimosa hostilis, gave himself an intramuscular injection of it, and experienced a “psychotic effect to the serotonin metabolism.”

The now discredited hypothesis that Indigenous groups used a hallucinogenic compound derived from toads was put forth by anthropologist Dr. Jeannette Runquist, and reported in a 1981 issue of Omni Magazine. She described decapitated toad skeletons buried near excavations of ancient Cherokee encampments in North Carolina, and wrongly inferred that what was, in fact, food waste as the telltale sign of Indigenous mysticism.

“Food trash was taken for psychedelic magic,” said Robert Villa, Research Associate, Tumamoc Desert Laboratory, Tucson, Arizona, and President of the Tucson Herpetological Society. “Toads were skinned and eaten as survival food, as part of the ordinary diet.”

Despite claims on the part of modern healers, there is no evidence in the archeological record of toads being used ceremonially by Indigenous groups in the Americas.

“For such a significant smoke, there would have to be some record of it,” said Mr. Villa. “Even though Indigenous cultures can be good at hiding things from outside inquisition, this is too significant to go unnoticed,” he said. “The significance of the toad in Indigenous culture isn’t what people want to believe,” said Mr. Villa. One of his goals is “to stop the appropriation of Indigenous culture around the Sonoran desert toad. All of the archeological leads are dead ends.” Using the abundant depictions of toads in Mesoamerican culture to bolster the specious claim that the toads were used in psychedelic rituals represents cultural hijacking.

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For ancient cultures, the life cycle of the Sonoran toad embodied rebirth and renewal. Its seasonal appearance – they spend ten months of the year underground, emerging briefly in July and August during the rainy season to mate and reproduce –  as well as its complex life cycle, which involves metamorphosis from a water-dwelling, gill-breathing, fish-like tadpole to land-dwelling, four-legged adult toad adds to its supernatural aura.

“They were thought to interact with gods of the underworld,” said Mr. Villa. In Sonora, locals avoid them as toxic. Among the Indigenous groups in northern Mexico, their appearance is associated with the arrival of seasonal rains. Disturbing them is an accursed act which can disrupt weather patterns. “You could incur damages from the gods in the form of drought or flooding if you harass a toad,” he said.

The evidence, according to Mr. Villa and other scientists who have explored the natural history of Incilius alvarius, indicates extracting and smoking toad-derived 5-MeO-DMT is a post-industrial phenomenon. It has nothing to do with cultural tradition. In recent years, however, “smoking toad” has become the new psychedelic fad, making Incilius alvarius the latest must-have in the growing list of psychedelic consumables. And in response to increasing demand from the tourism and retreat industries, one Mexican coastal group whose members have subsisted on tourism – mostly selling ironwood carvings to foreigners – have begun peddling Sonoran toad medicine to foreigners.

“The Seri, or Comcaac [an Indigenous group living on the mainland coast of the Gulf of California] adopted toad magic and medicine as a tourism item. They’re trying to make a living by facilitating people smoking this stuff. It’s not part of their history,” said Mr. Villa.

There is hearsay evidence, according to Mr. Villa, that regional cartels have begun exploiting this practice as well, as further means to extort locals in the interest of serving what is becoming a global trade.

We always talk about new courses when we launch them (and of course Navigating Psychedelics), but there’s a lot more at psychedeliceducationcenter.com, including free courses!

Bufo alvarius: the Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert

The entry of toad medicine into modern psychedelia is itself a twisted tale. Back in 1981, the Omni article piqued the interest of one reclusive resident of Denton, Texas, named Ken Nelson. While studying at the University of North Texas, Mr. Nelson commenced an earnest inquiry into toad skin secretions. He came across the work of the Italian toxicologist Dr. Vittorio Erspamer, whose most important contribution to neuroscience was the identification and synthesis of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. As a toxicologist, Dr. Erspamer was most interested in the exudate from amphibian parotid glands as a possible source of new medical drugs. His chemical analysis of the venom from 40 toad species serendipitously yielded the finding Nelson had hoped for: one species, Incilius alvarius synthesized a DMT-containing substance. Mr. Nelson documented his discovery and techniques for extracting, drying and smoking 5-MeO-DMT in his 1984 pamphlet: “Bufo alvarius: the Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert,” which he published privately under the pseudonym, Albert Most.**

Hear about Hamilton Morris’ connection to the book in episode 268!

Unwittingly, Mr. Nelson opened a Pandora’s box. Since then, a fabricated sacred mysticism has evolved around Incilius alvarius and the DMT squeezed from its glands. Despite the explicit wishes of Mr. Nelson, an ardent conservationist, who towards the end of his life expressed concerns about the ecological repercussions from misrepresentation of his work, use of 5-MeO-DMT has skyrocketed in recent years. Even though DMT can be fabricated in a lab with legal, commercially available chemical precursors, many practitioners – such as the retreat proprietor – adhere to a new age belief that there is something mystically special about DMT extracted from live toads.

I questioned the proprietor of the psychedelic retreat about the authenticity of his claims about 5-MeO-DMT. Why could he not use the lab-formulated version? Endangering the life of a wild animal in order to cure narcissism did not jive with his stated intentions. This fat little toad about the size of my hand was the embodiment of nature itself; and yet he as a Caucasian, self-styled psychedelic healer was exploiting it as a commodity. The toad had no say in its own destiny.

The proprietor responded by invoking an unknowable mystical consciousness with which he and his associates – the people responsible for collecting toad venom – were imbued. “We know what we are doing is for the good of humankind, in keeping with the sacred spirit of those who have preceded [us] in this practice,” he said. Those who collect the toad, he said, are performing a consecrated task. One of his practitioners, a Swedish man who guides DMT sessions at his retreats, described collection and use of the toad as a sacrament: “I only order [5-MeO-DMT] through sources I know,” he said. “It’s energy medicine, so the energy has to be right.” The source, he said, was a Mexican friend who has tribal connections and harvests the medicine directly. He would never use toads gathered the way he’d seen in videos – en masse and thrown in garbage bags.

“My sources milk toads once a year. They do it with respect and prayers. They put the toads back in the same location. They mark the toads so they don’t milk them several times.” Safety and purity, he said, were of the utmost importance.

Knowing what I know, the invocation of sacred ancestral spirits looked a lot like chicanery. The toad was the prima facie victim of narcissism. 

Identification with the Divine as a way to aggrandize oneself out of personal responsibility is, unfortunately, an all-too-common maneuver in psychedelic circles. This reflexive hopscotch affords participants the luxury of justifying anything they do: their particular psychedelic experiences are so sacred and important, normal rules do not apply. Any rules, all rules – whether psychological, medical, scientific, or ethical.

“Piaget’s concepts of schema and assimilation (vs. accommodation) seem relevant for understanding many of the less desirable potential outcomes of psychedelic use, including worsened narcissism, spiritual bypassing, guruism, unethical business practice, and bad music taste,” noted psychotherapist Max Wolff wryly in a tweet.

Assimilation occurs when we modify received information to fit with our existing knowledge and assumptions. Accommodation occurs when we reshape our perceptions in response to problems posed by the environment. We restructure what we already know so that new information can enter our universes. In the psychedelic space, real learning is so rare it is nothing short of miraculous. Most of the time, psychedelic experiences are no more transformative than a day trip to Disneyland.

Although practitioners and hobbyists argue they don’t harm the toad when they milk its glands, Mr. Villa points out toads are harmed when they are handled and moved; and collecting and transporting the toads is tantamount to killing them. “They’re very territorial,” he said. “Imagine if someone picked you from your house, put you in a sack and then moved you to the Saudi Arabian desert and left you there. Would you survive? Would you know how to get home?”

Toad Populations and a Moral Travesty

The biggest impediment to toad conservation, said Mr. Villa, is the absence of real population data. “To identify the problem, we have to have a snapshot of the past, a baseline. We don’t have that.”

The toad’s life cycle itself presents a challenge to population assessment. For most of the year, mature adults live underground in a quiescent state. They emerge when it starts raining, and there’s a breeding frenzy. Adult toads are conspicuous for about a month, then they go underground again. Tadpoles can be seen swimming in surface ponds until they mature. If there’s a lengthy drought, the subterranean toads survive in a state of something like suspended animation for years, making live populations hard to count. Years can pass when very few are observed. A rainstorm, and there are thousands where there were none.

“We think they live a long time,” said Thomas R. Jones, Ph.D., Amphibians and Reptiles Program Manager for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. “We don’t think three or even more years of poor rainfall affects the toads. They persist. When it finally rains, they come back out again,” he said.

The Arizona Department of Game and Fish has been monitoring a population at one site, but the data don’t account for the toads’ vast range, which stretches from the Sonoran desert in northern Mexico through Arizona and parts of New Mexico. Climate change, habitat destruction, and increased poaching add further obstacles. A local population in southeastern California was extirpated decades ago. None have been observed since the 1970s.

Counting their numbers does not address the fundamental problem with exploiting the toads, though, as reducing an amphibian member of the Sonoran desert ecosystem into raw material in service of a global supply chain is a moral travesty.

“Solutions most people conceive of as viable are implicitly biased by capitalism,” said Mr. Villa. “You might hear: ‘We’ll just breed them in captivity.’ In Hungary, there’s a small-scale operator doing it. Most captive breeding programs fail in some way.” There’s the problem of crowding, of waste water contamination, and of the captive animals becoming reservoirs for amphibian diseases like chytrid. The idea of breeding something to exploit is itself repugnant to Mr. Villa.

“There are more cogs than people really understand when it comes to this,” said Mr. Villa. “Few people have the ability to contemplate whether what they’re consuming is directly exploiting Indigenous people or an ecosystem. Does someone smoking 5-MeO-DMT in an east coast city consider whether they’re directly or indirectly exploiting someone down the supply chain?”

Chemists who formulate DMT have concluded there is no qualitative difference between psychedelic trips using the lab-made product and 5-MeO-DMT extracted from the toad’s parotid gland. Although the argument has been made that other compounds such as bufotenine, another tryptamine psychedelic found in low concentrations in some toad secretions, can contribute a certain je ne sais quoi to the experience, repeated testing of Incilius alvarius secretions yielded negligible bufotenine concentrations. There is no entourage effect. Furthermore, chemically and metabolically, formulated DMT is far purer. Samples of the dried toad secretion typically contain about 30 percent 5-MeO-DMT by mass. The remaining 70 percent is composed mostly of salts, proteins, and other high molecular weight chemicals. In other words, it’s saliva.

To suggest there’s anything special about 5-MeO-DMT flouts an established, well-respected component of the psychedelic tradition. More than any other factor, the subject’s own mindset – part of the psychedelic “set and setting” equation – determines how the trip goes.

5-MeO-DMT extracted from Incilius alvarius won’t cure narcissism. Projecting our spiritual expectations onto a toad only harms the toad.

*Goncalves de Lima, O. (1946). Observacio es sobre o “vinho de Jurema” utilizado pelos indios Pancaru’ de Tacaratu’ (Pernambuco) [Observations on the “vinho de Jurema” used by the Pancaru’ Indians of Tacaratu’ (Pernambuco)]. Ariquivos do Instituto de Pesquisas Agronomicas, 4, 45–80.

**Most, Albert. Bufo alvarius: the Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert. 1984; updated 2020. Venom Press. Denton, Texas. The 2020 updated edition contains detailed instructions for synthesizing DMT in a lab.

About the Author

Erica Rex is an award-winning journalist, bringing her impressive 30+ years of medical and journalistic experience to the world of psychedelic medicine. She is deeply embedded in the field of psychedelic research, writing for prestigious publications such as Scientific American, The New York Times, The Times, and The Independent among many others on the re-emergence of psychedelic medicine. She converses regularly with top researchers in the field in both Britain and the US. She gives invited talks about her experience as a patient and thought leader on psychedelic medicine trials to professional conferences and federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health. She’s been interviewed on NPR, Sky News, Psychedelics Today, and other news outlets. Her work lends a unique female perspective to the male-dominated field of psychedelic medicine, telling the story of psychedelic renaissance from two perspectives: patient/subject and highly accomplished science journalist. You can check out more of her work at: psychedelicrenaissance.substack.com.

Photo of Erica Rex by Pete Kiehart.

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