Are there really hallucinogenic frogs?

Bufotenine: Will Croakers Make You Croak?

People in the United States have used excretions from the Colorado River toad to get high.
People in the United States have used excretions from the Colorado River toad to get high.
Joel Sartore/Getty Images

In the 1980s, the Australian government outlawed the consumption of cane toad excretions under the Drug Misuse Act [source: Uzelac]. That's because some thrill-seekers had taken to cane-toad licking to get high. Remember the venom that cane toads shoot at their enemies? In certain dosages, it can produce hallucinogenic effects if licked or smoked.

Toad licking isn't unique to Australia. In the United States, another toad species, Bufo alvarius, known as the Colorado River toad or the Sonoran Desert toad, causes similar effects. Although it isn't illegal to own a Colorado River toad in the United States, the active chemical in toad venom, bufotenine, is a controlled substance. This is the same chemical contained in cane toad venom. Bufotenine-related drug arrests reappeared in Southwestern states such as Arizona in the mid-1980s and '90s, following its original heyday in the 1960s.

People looking to get high obtain the venom by applying pressure on the toad's paratoid glands, located behind its eardrums [source: Cameron]. This will cause the toad to ooze the milky substance, which someone may then directly lick off the amphibian or collect to dry and eventually smoke. Taking bufotenine is a crapshoot, however, since people won't know how much of the concentrated toxin they're ingesting until it's too late. That means they could experience mind-altering hallucinations or cardiac arrest and death. The psychedelic nature of bufotenine comes from a chemical called 5-MeO-DMT. It's in the dimethylethanamine family and is closely related to DMT, a naturally occurring hallucinogenic drug akin to synthetically made LSD. To get an idea of how 5-MeO-DMT affects the body, someone who takes DMT may initially experience an increased heart rate and pupil dilation. His or her visual hallucinations may include vibrating light and fast-moving images [source: Bruyn et al]. In short, this is a result of the drug interacting with neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, within the brain.

Drug experimentalists in the 1960s weren't the first people to discover these properties of frog extracts. Archaeological evidence points to South American Indian tribes using Colorado River toad venom in religious ceremonies dating back to 1150 B.C. [source: Cyphers et al]. The Matses Indians in northern Peru and the Matis of Brazil are also known to use the body fluids of the giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) as they believe it infuses strength and hunting prowess into tribesmen [source: BBC]. Although not exactly hallucinogenic, the Indians place the venom onto open flesh wounds after which they'll supposedly experience heightened sensory awareness, increased strength and stamina to hunt more effectively [source: BBC].

But smoking, licking or injecting frog and toad extracts into your body isn't always a mellow mind melt. It can be very dangerous since, after all, it's a natural toxin against predators.

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