Psychedelic CSR: Let’s Save the Sonoran Desert Toad

This is the fourth installment of our weekly Psychedelic CSR blog, this time advocating for special protections regarding the increasingly rare Bufo alvarius toad, which famously secretes 5-MeO-DMT. Like our other corporate social responsibility blogs, we only present problems within psychedelia to discuss subsequent solutions. If you care about protecting the existence and habitat of this toad, I encourage you to check out our call to environmentalism.

bufo alvarius

It seems that every year, more and more headlines are dedicated to the miraculous Sonoran desert toad, also known as Bufo Alvarius, which secretes a highly hallucinogenic venom. Indeed, I do not blame anyone for becoming fascinated with a toad which produces significant quantities of 5-MeO-DMT – one of the most powerful and fast acting psychedelics known to man – in it’s venom. 

The 5-MeO-DMT experience has been dubbed as “mystical”, which is echoed by the personal experience of our editor in chief here at Microdose. Likewise, the Sonoran desert toad (sometimes referred to as the Colorado River toad), has been used as a religious sacrament for decades. It directly inspired the Church of the Toad of Light, a fairly new religion that is explored in a new episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. Here, chemist and journalist/producer Hamilton Morris goes to great lengths to uncover the origins of this church and a rare pamphlet that is thought to have popularized tripping on the toad’s venom.

Beyond the church, however, Hamilton brings up an interesting point during the second half of the episode – the population of Bufo alvarius seems to be decreasing as it’s popularity increases. “The reality is that they are facing so many different threats simultaneously,” said Morris. “There’s issues with climate change, there’s issues with habitat destruction, there’s issues with pesticide contamination.”

This piece aims to outline the threats Bufo alvarius faces as a species, and more importantly, advocates psychedelic enthusiasts to opt out of milking these toads for their highly valuable venom. Instead, we encourage those curious about the 5-MeO-DMT experience to pursue synthetic 5-MeO-DMT instead of the toad’s venom. Ultimately, we hope to save the Sonoran desert toad and help establish a future where humans do not render them more endangered (or possibly extinct).

Human Activity, Both Intentional & Unintentional, Threatens Bufo Alvarius

Capturing toads to “milk them” for their venom does not directly kill a toad, at least not right then and there. But it does cause an ecological disturbance, brings more human foot traffic to their habitat, and displaces toads from their otherwise natural habitats. Even if you return the toad to its original habitat, you’ve disoriented the toad’s “inner GPS” – meaning the toad will need time to adjust to its surroundings, making it more vulnerable to predators (and to being accidentally run over by cars – more on this later). Though this venom makes humans trip, it is still venom – it is an animal’s defense mechanism from predators. Returning a toad freshly “milked out” of their defense mechanism makes them easily hunted and killed.

Furthermore, venom collectors are more likely to grab bigger toads for obvious reasons (e.g. they are easier to spot and may be assumed to have more precious venom). However, this displaces the toads who carry eggs, and thus decreases the species ability to sustain life over time. 

Another thing to consider is the pathogens (e.g., chytridiomycosis) these toads may be exposed to while being milked by venom collectors. This is yet another way a toad could eventually die from just a single milking. Even if the toad does not die from the aforementioned reasons, it could bring back the pathogens to it’s fellow toads, ultimately killing off more of its population. For the record, when a species’ population decreases, the risk of inbreeding increases, which is deadly for obvious reasons.

Finally, perhaps the biggest threats faced by Bufo alvarius is unintentional human activity. Toad “milkers” are to blame for the reasons mentioned above, but climate change and industrialization are not deliberately targeting these toads. Roads are built, which means artificial light (e.g., car lights and street lights) becomes more present. The problem is that insects are attracted to this artificial light, which causes toads to congregate by the roads (toads eat insects). This increases the chance of them getting run over. Overtime, pollution and toxins from cars may seep into their environment, too, which would have a detrimental effect on their livelihood. 

The severity of all these threats can be debated relentlessly, and to be clear, these toads are not doomed just yet. But the milking trend puts them on a path to doom, which could eventually render them extinct and/or disrupt the food chain of bigger/smaller animals of the same habitat. 

However, we do not need to milk the toads! The remainder of this article will argue in favor of humans using synthetic 5-MeO-DMT to trip, especially if we are to pursue this medicine as a therapeutic.

bufo alvarius

A Plea to Psychedelic Enthusiasts

There is a cocktail of toxins in Sonoran desert toad venom that, while they may not be fatal in many cases, they ought to be avoided! On the other hand, synthetic 5-MeO-DMT is much safer to use. A good “batch” or synthesis can be replicated over and over – providing many opportunities to experiment with 5-MeO-DMT without bothering the bufo toad population.

Furthermore, there is no difference between synthetic 5-MeO-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT isolated from the secretions of Bufo alvarius. There is also no evidence that other compounds in the secretions contribute to some sort of “entourage effect” of a high. In other words, we have no documented evidence that something besides the 5-MeO-DMT is causing such immense hallucinatory trips for users. Claims that the two highs have “different feels” may be placebos, especially when we consider how taking a “natural” drug might psychologically impact the expectations of a user. Of course, there are dosage differences in synthetic 5-MeO-DMT and Bufo alvarius secretion-derived 5-MeO-DMT, but you are given more exact dosage control with the synthetic.

“I think it’s really important to think about this in an evidence based way,” said Morris. “Even bufotenine, which is the only other compound that has ever been found in Bufo alvarius that is definitively a psychedelic, is never present in very high concentrations, if at all! It wasn’t present in any of the analysis I did.”

bufo alvarius

A Plea to Psychedelic Medicine Companies

From an industry standpoint, there are dozens of reasons why companies should completely opt out of using Bufo alvarius toads to harvest 5-MeO-DMT. The first is to avoid any animal rights conflicts, which would be a PR nightmare and a disservice to the image of this nascent industry. 

But much more importantly – synthetic 5-MeO-DMT is really easy to make, especially with the high profile scientists we have working in psychedelic medicine. The precursors to make 5-MeO-DMT are completely legal and the process is relatively inexpensive. In fact, the unabbreviated name for 5-MeO-DMT is 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Well, then it doesn’t take an accredited scholar to take 5-Methoxytryptamine (a metabolite of melatonin) and turn it into 5-MeO-DMT. Luckily, we do have accredited scholars – and that puts us in a great position to produce this drug reliably, on a global scale, and in a way that can be pushed down the drug development pipeline.

For this reason, it will be much easier for researchers to re-schedule and perhaps legalize the synthetic version for medical use. As of now, the complex bufotoxin in its natural form does not seem to have a clear path forward down the drug development pipeline, nor do I think that path forward is worth creating a therapeutic dependent on the livelihood of an animal. 

Being Socially Responsible Sets an Environmentally Friendly Precedent for this Industry

As I’ve echoed in past corporate social responsibility (CSR) blogs, we need to separate ourselves from traditional pharmaceutical endeavors. Psychedelics can create an overtly positive effect for the user, and we ought to respond to the miracle of psychedelics by pushing an overtly positive agenda onto the public. Showing that we are making strikes towards environmentalism and the protection of increasingly endangered species sets a precedent of care in this industry, and flexes our faith in science – not some spiritual oad to the toad. It makes sense that religious institutions might pursue the toad venom, as I cannot disqualify one’s notion that the “spirit of toad” contributes to their experience. Indeed, religious freedom is paramount – but spirituality ought to remain separate from new therapeutic industries. A sustainable future lies ahead us with synthetic 5-MeO-DMT, not in psychoactive toad venom.

Ali Shana

Ali Shana

Ali Shana is a Palestinian-American writer and grad student studying clinical mental health counseling. He tends to report on a variety of drug-related topics, such as policy reform, psychopharmacology, and medication-assisted therapies.