The National Park Service posted an unusual request on Facebook last week warning visitors not to lick the Sonoran desert toad (Incilius alvarius). These amphibians secrete a powerful psychoactive toxin strong enough to kill an adult dog.
“As we say with most things you come across in a national park, whether it be a banana slug, unfamiliar mushroom or a large toad with glowing eyes in the dead of night, please refrain from licking,” the agency wrote. “These toads have prominent parotoid glands that secrete a potent toxin. It can make you sick if you handle the frog or get the poison in your mouth.”
While licking toads for their alleged psychedelic effects was a fad in the 1980s, per the National Poison Control Center, these days, it’s smoking their secretions that’s more popular, writes NPR’s Juliana Kim.
But scientists are now warning that the demand for the toad's secretion could lead its population to collapse, wrote Simon Romero for the New York Times earlier this year.
Sonoran desert toads—also called Colorado River toads—are found primarily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico, though their range extends into New Mexico and California. With lengths reaching to nearly eight inches, they are among the largest toads in North America—but their sound is a weak “toot.” They also live remarkably long lives; their life span could be at least 10 years and possibly as many as 20. While the animals are listed as “Least Concern” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, they are considered threatened in New Mexico because of habitat loss, roadway mortality and overcollection for drug use.
“There’s a psychedelic renaissance that’s happening,” Robert Villa, president of the Tucson Herpetological Society and a researcher with the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory, told Jessica Kutz of High Country News (HCN) in 2021. “And there’s a whole sect of this community that is devoted to the Sonoran desert toad, extracting [it] for psychedelic use.”
The main psychedelic chemical in the toads’ secretion is called 5-MeO-DMT. It’s also found in plant species that have been used for rituals, as well as in some fungi, including the false death cap (Amanita citrina). In the United States, 5-MeO-DMT is illegal to use and is listed as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” per the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Celebrities such as Mike Tyson and Hunter Biden have touted using 5-MeO-DMT as a life-changing experience. Biden claimed it helped him stay sober for a year. The effects last for only 15 to 30 minutes, but users report “mystical experiences, including an alleged communion with some higher-order, divine consciousness,” wrote John Semley for Buzzfeed News last year.
Because widespread use of 5-MeO-DMT could have disastrous effects for Sonoran desert toads, Villa and other conservationists are pushing for people to use synthetic alternatives. Some collectors claim to harvest the toxin in a sustainable way, releasing the animals when they’re done. But Villa told HCN the toads only secrete toxins in stressful, violent contexts, adding that “ultimately, people are self-medicating at the expense of another creature.”
“On a philosophical level,” Villa told Forbes’ David E. Carpenter last year, “collecting secretions from the toad is no different to the toad than being endangered by a predator. This practice speaks to the lack of spirituality or concept of the power of intention in our society.”