Move over, ayahuasca. Even though celebs like Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox have experienced mind-altering trips on the psychoactive Amazonian tea, there's another, more potent psychedelic that counts Mike Tyson, HGTV's Christina Haack, and Hunter Biden among its fans. (Quite the trio, we know.) Tyson said it urged him to return to boxing, Haack called it "life-changing," and Biden claimed it helped keep him sober for a year.
It's 5-MeO-DMT, a chemical found within the venom of Bufo alvarius, commonly called the Sonoran Desert toad or Colorado River toad. (And as the name suggests, this big toad can be found in and around the Sonoran Desert in California and in Arizona south to Mexico.) But this isn't the backyard toad that you've been warned can poison your dog (that's the cane toad, formerly part of the Bufo genus of toad). Nope, the venom of Bufo alvarius will simply catapult your mind into a heightened level of consciousness like a rocket blasting into outer space at the speed of light.
With many people today already familiar with psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ketamine, and DMT — used for both recreational and medical purposes — we decided to take a look at 5-MeO-DMT, also referred to as 5MeO, five-methoxy, "the power," and, simply, toad venom. Keep reading to find out how it works, whether it's legal and safe, and its therapeutic potential for those with mental illness.
How does smoking toad venom work?
The venom contains 5-MeO-DMT, a molecule that, like most classical psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin, binds to your serotonin receptors (remember, serotonin is the "happiness chemical" that sends messages between brain cells and helps stabilize your mood). This is how it creates a psychedelic journey when smoked or vaporized, says Mike Dow, Ph.D., Psy.D., who practices psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy at Field Trip Health. Traditionally, the drug was made by dehydrating the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, but it's primarily manufactured in a synthetic form these days.
"There's still more research to be done to truly understand how 5-MeO-DMT works, but as a tryptamine (like psilocybin and LSD) it can create a sense of unity, euphoria, and ego dissolution," he says. "However, it tends to be far more intense and far shorter — about 20 minutes vs. four hours for psilocybin — than other psychedelics."
What is the trip like?
David E. Carpenter, a journalist who covers trends and breakthroughs in psychoactive substances for Forbes, has been interviewing users of toad venom for his upcoming book 5 & I: A Journey Into The Mysterious World Of 5-MeO-DMT, The Most Powerful Psychoactive Drug On The Planet, due out this year.
"The power it has to shift a person's perspective is remarkable," he says. "People I've talked with who were skeptical of spirituality and religious faith prior to use have described the effects of 5-MeO-DMT as a window into the sacred and a means to connect with unitary consciousness. This sometimes leads to a better understanding of one's place in the universe."
Carpenter, who also wrote Your Neighbors Are Doing Psychedelics: MDMA, notes that Haack's claim that toad venom "kicked out years of anxiety in 15 mins" is not uncommon for 5-MeO-DMT users. However, he warns that the drug isn't a cure-all for such mental health problems.
"It can be terrifying to experience a total loss of self, which is what many people experience," he said, noting that the other core characteristics of the 5-MeO-DMT trip are oneness and unitary consciousness. "Author Michael Pollan wrote about his horrifying experience of ego loss on 5-MeO-DMT, saying it felt like being strapped to the outside of a rocket."
As for how it compares to other psychoactive substances, toad venom is in a class all its own, he says, and is widely agreed to be "the most powerful psychoactive drug on Earth."
Is toad venom safe?
Use of all drugs carries certain risks, Dow explains, and toad venom is no different. However, overall, the risk profile for most psychedelics is quite low — at least in terms of risk of death, overdose, or addiction. "But, because of the intensity of the experience, 5-MEO is generally seen as higher risk than, say, psilocybin in those respects," he says.
Although people most often smoke or vape toad venom, 5-MeO-DMT can be injected, taken orally, or taken sublingually (under the tongue). While you'll get the strongest effect by smoking, vaping, or injecting synthetic 5-MeO-DMT, toad venom should only be vaped or smoked, Dow says.
Some individuals, desperate for a high, have licked toads to try to induce a psychedelic experience — needless to say, Dow strongly advises against this for "countless reasons, including the unpredictability of dosing, hygiene, and the fact that there are cases of people licking toads and dying."
Is it legal?
While toad venom has been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States since 2011, it is legal in Canada and Mexico, according to Dow. Many go to the latter country to experience it.
When did smoking toad venom become popular?
Modern use of the drug dates back to 1984, with the publication of a pamphlet, Bufo Alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad Of The Sonoran Desert, although it was first synthesized by scientists in 1936, according to Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an expert in psychedelics. "The current wave of popularity is really just building on the increased awareness of this compound over the last few decades," he says. "The internet has obviously played a huge role."
Carpenter agrees that toad venom has seen a massive surge of interest lately, in part because it has a short duration and a fast onset for people seeking "a 15-minute session where you experience yourself dissolving into unitary consciousness ... rather than a five-to-eight-hour rollercoaster ride on something like psilocybin-containing mushrooms."
However, it's also in the spotlight because of its therapeutic potential.
How can toad venom help people with mental health issues?
Research by Johns Hopkins, Maastricht University in The Netherlands, and other institutions has shown that 5-MeO-DMT, like other psychedelics, can be used to treat various mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, PTSD, and end-of-life fear.
"These psychoactive drugs can be effective mental health tools used alongside psychotherapy," Carpenter says. He notes that European companies GH Research and Beckley Psytech are currently involved in separate clinical trials using 5-MeO-DMT for treatment-resistant depression. "Both are putting loads of money and time into their research," he says.
Johnson notes that there's a lot more research needed on the topic. "There isn't much formal research, and the surveys of human use are typically not of high quality to date," he says. However, considering that psilocybin mushrooms have been shown to help psychiatric disorders by creating a mystical experience of universal oneness, it's likely that the 5-MeO-DMT experience works similarly.
Should we be worried about the toads?
Wondering what the popularity of toad venom doing to the toad population? Well, it's not great. Conservationists worry that the Bufo alvarius is being "harassed and harmed nearly to extinction" thanks to the increasing popularity of toad venom, Carpenter says. He recommends that people seek out synthesized versions of 5-MeO-DMT instead as there seems to be no discernible difference between the two. He adds: "Sonoran toads would be eternally grateful."