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It is, I think, precisely this perspective that had allowed so many of the volunteers I interviewed to overcome their fears and anxieties, and in the case of the smokers, their addictions. Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability”—the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty. To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or—it comes to the same thing—widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature. Now I understood how a psychedelic could help us to make precisely that move, from the first-person singular to the plural and beyond. Under its influence, a sense of our interconnectedness—that platitude—is felt, becomes flesh. Though this perspective is not something a chemical can sustain for more than a few hours, those hours can give us an opportunity to see how it might go. And perhaps to practice being there.

I left Mary’s loft in high spirits, but also with the feeling I was holding on to something precious by the thinnest, most tenuous of threads. It seemed doubtful I could maintain my grip on this outlook for the rest of the day, much less the rest of my life, but it also seemed worth trying.

Trip Three: 5-MeO-DMT (or, The Toad) Yes, “the toad,” or to be more precise, the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad (Incilius alvarius), also called the Colorado River toad, which contains a molecule called 5-MeO-DMT that is one of the most potent and fast-acting psychotropic drugs there is. No, I had never heard of it either. It is so obscure, in fact, that the federal government did not list 5-MeO-DMT as a controlled substance until 2011.

The opportunity to smoke the toad popped up suddenly, giving me very little time to decide if doing so was crazy or not. I got a call from one of my sources, a woman who was training to become a certified psychedelic guide, inviting me to meet her friend Rocío, a thirty-five-year-old Mexican therapist whom she described as “probably the world’s leading expert on the toad.” (Though how intense, really, could the competition for that title be?) Rocío is from the state of Sonora, in northern Mexico, where she collects the toads and milks their venom; she administers the medicine to people both in Mexico, where its legal status is gray, and in the United States, where it isn’t. (It doesn’t appear to be on the official radar, however.)

Rocío worked in a clinic in Mexico that treated drug addicts with a combination of iboga, a psychedelic plant from Africa, and 5-MeO-DMT—apparently with striking rates of success. In recent years, she’s become the Johnny Appleseed of toad, traveling all over North America with her capsules of crystallized venom and her vaporizer. As my circle of psychonauts expanded, most anyone I met who’d had an encounter with the toad had been introduced to it by Rocío.

The first time I met Rocío, at a small dinner organized by our mutual friend, she told me about the toad and what I might expect from it. Rocío was petite, pretty, and fashionably dressed, her shoulder-length black hair cut to frame her face with bangs. She has an easy smile that brings out a dimple on one cheek. Not at all what I expected, Rocío looked less the part of a shaman or curandera than that of an urban professional.

After going to college and working for a few years in the United States, five years ago Rocío found herself back at home in Mexico living with her parents and without direction. Online, she found a manual about the toad, which she learned was native to the local desert. (Its habitat extends the length of the Sonoran Desert north into Arizona.) Nine months of the year, the toad lives underground, protected from the desert sun and heat, but when the winter rains come, it emerges at night from its burrow for a brief orgy of eating and copulation. Following the instructions spelled out in the manual, Rocío strapped on a headlamp and went hunting for toads.

“They’re not very hard to catch,” she told me. “They freeze in the beam of light so you can just grab them.” The toads, which are warty, sand colored, and roughly the size of a man’s hand, have a large gland on each side of their necks, and smaller ones on their legs. “You gently squeeze the gland while holding a mirror in front of it to catch the spray.” The toad is apparently none the worse for being milked. Overnight, the venom dries on the glass, turning into flaky crystals the color of brown sugar.

In its natural state, the venom is toxic—a defense chemical sprayed by the toad when it feels threatened. But when the crystals are volatilized, the toxins are destroyed, leaving behind the 5-MeO-DMT. Rocío vaporizes the crystals in a glass pipe while the recipient inhales; before you’ve had a chance to exhale, you are gone. “The toad comes on quickly, and at first it can be unbelievably intense.” I noticed that Rocío personified the toad and seldom called the medicine by its molecular name. “Some people remain perfectly still. Other people scream and flail, especially when the toad brings out traumas, which it can do. A few people will vomit. And then after twenty or thirty minutes, the toad is all done and it leaves.”

My first instinct when facing such a decision is to read as much about it as I can, and later that night Rocío e-mailed me a few articles. But the pickings were slim. Unlike most other psychedelics, which by now have been extensively studied by scientists and, in many cases, in use for hundreds if not thousands of years, the toad has been known to Western science only since 1992. That’s when Andrew Weil and Wade Davis published a paper called “Identity of a New World Psychoactive Toad.” They had been inspired to look for such a fantastical creature by the images of frogs in Mayan art. But the only psychoactive toad they could find lives far to the north of Mayan civilization. It’s possible that these toads became an item of trade, but as yet there is no proof that the practice of smoking toad venom has any antiquity whatsoever. However, 5-MeO-DMT also occurs in a handful of South American plants, and there are several Amazonian tribes who pound these plants into a snuff for use in shamanic rituals. Among some of these tribes, these snuffs are known as the “semen of the sun.”

I couldn’t find much in the way of solid medical information about potential side effects or dangerous drug interactions; little research has been done. What I did find were plenty of trip reports online, and many of these were terrifying. I also learned there was someone in town, a friend of a friend I had met a few times at dinner parties, who had tried 5-MeO-DMT—not the toad but a synthetic version of the active ingredient. I took her out to lunch to see what I could learn.

“This is the Everest of psychedelics,” she began, portentously, putting a steadying hand on my forearm. Olivia is in her early fifties, a management consultant with a couple of kids; I had vaguely known she was into Eastern religion but had no idea she was a psychonaut, too.

“You need to be prepared.” Over grilled cheeses, she described a harrowing onset. “I was shot out into an infinite realm of pure being. There were no figures in this world, no entities of any kind, just pure being. And it was huge; I didn’t know what infinity was before this. But it was a two-dimensional realm, not three, and after the rush of liftoff, I found myself installed in this infinite space as a star. I remember thinking, if this is death, I’m fine with it. It was . . . bliss. I had the feeling—no, the knowledge—that every single thing there is is made of love.

“After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only minutes, you start to reassemble and come back into your body. I had the thought, ‘There are children to raise. And there is an infinite amount of time to be dead.’”

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