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The toad boom: the false narrative of ancestral 5-MeO-DMT use

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Editorial Note: Anny Ortiz returns with her fourth contribution to the Pharmaceutical Inequalities series. In this latest post she interrogates how the false narrative of ancestral 5-MeO-DMT use, that started with one man ten years ago, has given way to toad churches that may threaten the future viability of their sacrament – the toad. The Pharmaceutical Inequalities series is funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.

After a brief summer break to conduct field work back home in Sonora, Mexico, I am back at UW-Madison starting my final year of graduate school and preparing to write my dissertation in a three-paper format.

One of these papers will be a narrative paper that will address and formally document the entire situation that has been unfolding around the Sonoran Desert toad – the exploitation the species is being subjected to, and the social and cultural dynamics that have developed around the species.

For my fourth submission to this series, I would like to touch on some of the aspects of this paper and air some concerns I have after seeing the state of affairs in Sonora whilst I was there doing field work.

In a previous post (my second in this series) I mentioned that ten years ago, in 2012, a group of people that had just formed a non-profit organization in Mexico approached one of the Indigenous tribes in my home state of Sonora: the Seri (Comcaac) tribe. This led to the introduction of a fabricated myth of toad-derived 5-MeO-DMT ancestral use. I want to expand a little on how this happened, and the impacts that this continues to have today.

One of the members from that organization (a doctor who I will not name) alleged that the use of 5-MeO-DMT extracted from the Sonoran Desert toad had “cured” his methamphetamine addiction, and because meth addiction is so rampant in indigenous communities, including the Seri community, this doctor wilfully offered to treat members of the Seri tribe who were struggling with addiction. This created an opening for this doctor, who shortly thereafter began making claims that the Seri tribe had used “toad medicine” ancestrally, but that due to colonization the practice had vanished, and that he was bringing it back. I must also add here, that this doctor was a white man, and not of an Indigenous tribe.

These ancestral use claims propagated like wildfire in drought season through various documentaries that indiscriminately ran with these false claims as if they were unquestionable truths. This doctor began doing extensive international tours selling toad medicine sessions, making up a strange ritual that includes practices that look more like torture than therapy (e.g., water boarding, using an electrical tazer, etc.). A few years later, other, perhaps well-intentioned yet dangerously naïve doctors, have gone on to “train” with Seri elders/Medicine men. Now, like the doctor who started all this, they travel the world “serving” toad medicine.

This is something I recently learned from a woman I met at the International Forum on Consciousness in Madison, Wisconsin. After she informed me about a psychiatrist who had allegedly trained with a Seri elder, I told her that it means nothing if someone says they trained with a Seri elder because toad serving/smoking is not part of their ancestral culture or traditions. What they are seeking to achieve through claiming that they were trained by a Seri elder, is validation and authenticity. To the informed, it is clear that the individual has no idea what they are doing or talking about!

Finding out about these former medical professionals, now turned toad shamans, makes me wonder how many others are out there doing the same thing, making a living at the expense of the toads. Anybody that “serves toad”, as this woman put it, has no conservation concerns for the toad species and has an illusion of abundance. This is problematic.

An example of a healthy-looking toad (see also feature image).

We started collecting data for a toad population study last year, and we just finished three months of monitoring the species this year. Although we need to collect further data during the next three years to be able to examine the toad population’s trends and dynamics, from looking at the preliminary raw data from these first two years, it is not looking too hopeful for the toad species. Not only is the species being affected by the huge demand that results in poaching and exploitation but changing climate patterns are also impacting them. For example, the monsoon season rains used to come by late June, giving the toads plenty of time to reproduce, metamorphosize and go back down under the Earth before fall/winter comes, but during the last two years, monsoon rains have not come until later in the season, which can in itself affect the toad’s reproductive capacity.

What repeated extraction of toad secretions can do to their skin: a toad showing signs of exploitation on their skin and glands. As an endemic species, all toad secretions used by all these different facilitators come from the same place, resulting in severe exploitation.

This summer particularly, there was no rain in all of June/July, but then by mid-August there was significant rainfall to the point of flooding, which is not necessarily good for the toads either given that they can’t come out of their burrows if totally flooded. Once the heavy rainfall receded, we were able to collect data from various localities around the state.

As a side note, doing this field work is further complicated by the fact that Sonora is really unsafe as there are many areas (actually the whole state!) that are overtaken by narcos. Additionally, rival groups of toad secretion collectors are at odds with one another which adds to hostilities.

During field work we were also told that some toad secretion collectors are using a forged letter to show to police, allegedly signed by the Seri tribe, in order to justify their collections. This obviously makes no sense; on what grounds would the Seri people issue permits to collect toad secretions, and often outside of their territory where they have no jurisdiction, for something that is not part of their traditions?!

In sum, what started ten years ago with a Mexican doctor making false claims about the ancestral use of toad secretions, and their anti-addictive properties based on a sample size of one, is now a total boom across the world, with highly respected medical professionals jumping on the bandwagon. In the best-case scenarios, these individuals appeal to consumers based on false traditions, and in the worst-case scenarios, growing numbers of individuals from questionable professional backgrounds (i.e., hairdressers, fashion models, and even porn stars) are becoming toad shamans without any sort of clinical training. 5-MeO-DMT sessions are offered for profit in expensive retreat centers, located where the toad is not present neither in the ecosystem, nor in the traditional practices of the local Indigenous peoples.

At a time when there is such a strong movement towards respecting Indigenous ways of knowing, and honoring Indigenous communities’ rights to self-governance and self-determination, I feel that Western man inventing “ancestral traditions” does a real disservice to the movement. In the third paper of my dissertation, I will aim to articulate the information needed for people to become a little more discerning about what it is that they are choosing, and contributing to, when they seek toad medicine.


Feature image: David Bygott



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