A naturally occurring psychedelic, toad venom—or 5-MeO-DMT—is as bizarre as it sounds. Banned in the U.S. but legal in Canada, the chemicals that make up the venom can be found in several different plant species and—as its nickname intimates—toads.
Used by ancient cultures as medicine to treat things like heart failure, tumors, and pain, the drug prompted a cycle of abuse in the 90s, one that seemed on the verge of a comeback last fall when an American overdosed and died. But with a new study out of China this month, the once-therapeutic venom may be returning to its roots.
Released this April in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the paper is the most comprehensive look at the medical benefits of toad venom and toad skin thus far. In the minds of researchers at the Macau Institute for Applied Research in Medicine and Health in China where it was performed, it’s also a significant sign that the drug’s anti-cancer agents are powerful.
“Our research provides valuable chemical evidence for the appropriate processing method, quality control and rational exploration of toad skin and toad venom for the development of anticancer medicines,” the authors conclude.
The paper, which explores 56 different steroids in venom and skin of toads, comes in the wake of a similar study out of Australia in which researchers found cane toad venom to be effective at killing cancerous prostate cells. “We could process the venom for medicine, ideally in a tablet because it tastes absolutely awful if you drink it,” one author told The Guardian.
The Australian researchers found similar anti-cancer properties in toad venom, specifically its ability to kill cancerous prostate cells. Their research was so compelling, it prompted Chinese companies to reach out asking if they could buy bundles of cane toads (which are only in Australia).
One of the researchers, Harendra Parekh, said it would be a good way to deal with something that most in Australia consider a “pest.” Plus, he said, obtaining the venom is easy. “You can do it while they are alive and venom from one toad can go a long way,” said Parekh. “It’s very potent, which is why it causes problems if your dog simply licks the skin of a cane toad.”
While the idea of “licking a toad,” has long been a favorite topic of folklore; the actual practice itself is dangerous. A toad’s venom is highly toxic and meant to stave off potential predators. In some cases, it does. The chemical is specifically deadly to dogs. “Toad venom toxicity is a heath emergency requiring immediate treatment, as it can quickly lead to death,” reads PetMd.
In humans, when abused, it can be equally lethal.
Those who partake in “smoking” toad venom follow a specific procedure, which includes stroking the toad below the chin to “initiate its defense” (at which point it releases the chemical). In the U.S., the toad carrying the psychedelic is found in the Colorado River and one of its tributaries, the Gila River.
As a result, it’s most prevalent in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. It can be smoked, vaporized, or cooked into hard brown substance called “stone.” Last fall, it popped up in New York, where a 39-year-old man died after ingesting it. The death led officials to issue an emergency warning saying the “illegal aphrodisiac” can cause “serious poisonings and death.”
Despite an apparent uptick in recreational use and increasing attention from the science world, toad venom is nothing new. A naturally occurring psychedelic, it’s been found in plant species and toads for thousands of years. In China, the practice of using toad venom to treat cancer is known as Huachansu.
The first major medical studies by Chinese scientists occurred in the 1970s, where they found evidence that it could treat a variety of cancers ranging from liver to lung. Questions about its efficacy are still unclear, with one recent studying estimating that 10 to 16 percent of patients respond to the treatment.
As the science world tries to move it forward, the recreational continues its obsession.
A Reddit user opened a thread Friday with the question, “Anyone here tried smoked toad venom?” The answer was a resounding yes. “The come up feels even more intense than DMT, which is already nuts, and the trip itself is kind of shallow,” said a user. “Barely any visuals…and you feel a lot more confusion.”
If licking the drug is enough to kill dogs, smoking it isn’t much better.
A 2011 study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse described the physiological and behavioral affects as “visionary and auditory distortion, hyperthermia, head-twitch, and stimulus control.” Chest and abdominal pain, followed by nausea, can occur as well. An overdose can turn deadly, which researchers noting “several cases” of death in humans.
The final commenter on the Reddit thread expressed anger that the venom is being used for fun, offering an eerily applicable warning: “Have fun possibly killing yourself.”