TUCSON, Ariz. — After multiple combat tours as a Navy SEAL, Marcus Capone tried talk therapy. Brain-injury clinics. Prescription drugs. Nothing worked to ease his crippling depression and anxiety.
Then he smoked the venom of the Sonoran desert toad.
“I saw why they call this the ‘God molecule’ after I got a full central nervous system reset,” said Mr. Capone, 45, who now runs a nonprofit with his wife helping hundreds of other Special Operations veterans access toad medicine.
Riding the wave of greater mainstream acceptance of psychedelics for treating mental disorders and addiction, a fast-growing retreat industry is touting the potential of the toad’s secretions. People pay anywhere from $250 for a ceremony in the East Texas woods to $8,500 for a more gilded beachfront setting in Tulum, Mexico, to consume the venom.
But in a sign of the unintended consequences of the psychedelic resurgence, scientists are warning that the scramble by users to obtain the toads — involving poaching, over-harvesting and illegal trafficking in arid expanses straddling the border with Mexico — could trigger a collapse in Sonoran desert toad populations.
illegal in the United States, where it is classified as a Schedule 1 substance. But while many users opt to attend retreats in Mexico, where it is legal, ceremonies are also taking place in the United States, where law enforcement agencies are largely tolerating its growing popularity.
Celebrities from Chelsea Handler to Joe Rogan have smoked the venom, commonly called Five or Bufo (after the toad’s former scientific name, Bufo alvarius; it’s been renamed Incilius alvarius). As researchers start looking into the safety of 5-MeO-DMT, reports of adverse experiences are also occasionally emerging.
For instance, a photographer died in one episode in Spain in 2020 after smoking the venom. At some retreats, operators have paramedics on standby to help people who might have negative reactions.
Still, interest in Bufo is climbing, with users often calling it the “God molecule,” likening its use to a religious experience.
Bernice Anderson, 50, who goes by the Mayan name Ixca and charges $1,100 for retreats in Utah, said that smoking Bufo allows some people to feel like they are dying before returning to life.
“They will foam at the mouth, and their eyes will roll to the back of their head,” said Ms. Anderson, who does not use synthetic 5-MeO-DMT. “It’s at that point where the shamanic experience comes in. This is something that has to be carried out very carefully.”
Still, the surging demand for the Sonoran desert toad’s venom is raising alarm. Robert Villa, president of the Tucson Herpetological Society, compared the threats with those faced by Asian river turtles, which are facing extinction risks because of habitat loss and a belief that they cure ailments like cancer.