Many look for ways to cope with their lives, seeking salves to cover up long standing emotional wounds. They often end up choosing short-lived answers through substance abuse.
Solemn confessions beginning with “My name is…” may be expected to precede tales of depravity and ruin in dingy $59-a-night motel rooms wreaking of burnt chemicals and despair. That was Hunter Biden’s recent admission, describing a wayward life of drug addiction in his memoir Beautiful Things. Hooked on alcohol and crack cocaine, he delves into the darkness of drug deals, depression, and the general mayhem that accompanies a spiraling addiction.
In his desperate search for sobriety over the past decade, Biden makes a powerful admission, particularly for the son of a U.S. president: That while trying to kick his drug addiction he sought psychedelic treatments in Mexico. One therapy included using the substance ibogaine, a psychoactive drug derived from the African plant iboga, which Biden writes provided him with a flickering slideshow of his life. The other substance he used was more obscure and has been the topic of some tawdry tabloid discussion since the book hit the shelves: smoking toad venom.
“I know it sounds loopy,” he writes of his treatments in Beautiful Things, which he reveals kept him sober for over one full year. “Yet whatever else it did or didn’t do, the experience unlocked feelings and hurts I’d buried deep for too long. It served as a salve.”
His admission of using toad venom to cure his addiction is the first of its kind for a relative of the inhabitants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There have been the odd scandalous mentions of the Bush family dealing with drugs and Bill Clinton’s half-confession of smoking pot but “not inhaling.” And then there’s Chip Carter smoking a joint with Willie Nelson on the rooftop of the Whitehouse. But nothing comes close to the admission of smoking psychoactive toad venom to cure a crack cocaine addiction.
Containing the psychotropic compound 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), naturally present in small quantities in a variety of plants and animals, the substance is most notably derived from the defense secretions of the Sonoran Desert Toad. Referred to as one of the most potent psychoactive substances on the planet (renowned psychiatrist and psychonaut Stanislav Grof called 5-MeO-DMT the most powerful psychedelic experience he’d ever had) the drug is fast-acting and has a short-duration. Onset is typically within seconds and its effects generally last as briefly as 10 to 15 minutes. It’s been described as a catapult to the center of the cosmos, providing users with a feeling of oneness with all things in the universe. It has also been known to change people at a core level.
“It was a profound experience,” Biden writes of toad venom. “It connected me in a vividly renewed way to everyone in my life, living or dead. It felt as though I was seeing all of existence at once — and as one.”
While a confession like this is unprecedented by the family member of a high-profile politician, Biden’s admission of smoking toad venom for drug and alcohol cessation and mental health issues is fairly well documented and may point to the future of treatments for depression, anxiety, and addiction. Though no clinical trial data exists yet for 5-MeO-DMT, a revealing 2019 study published by Maastricht University, collected from 42 individuals, showed that a single inhalation of 5-MeO-DMT vapor in a naturalistic setting was related to “sustained enhancement of satisfaction with life, mindfulness-related capacities, and a decrement of psychopathological symptoms.”
This kind of treatment is not a new concept. In the 1950s, Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson famously stated that LSD had the ability to release hardcore alcoholics from addiction. He had personally experienced deep healing from his severe addiction using psychedelics, having had a mystical breakthrough on the substance that led to a profound and lasting understanding of his addiction. While the organization didn’t embrace the use of the psychoactive drug to treat alcoholics, half a century later Wilson’s unorthodox theory about the benefits of a deep spiritual awakening through psychoactive drugs to lessen alcoholic cravings has attracted a new wave of interest.
Reverberations of those psychedelic treatments are chronicled in the many stories of healing at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, where macro-doses of psilocybin are providing people with intense mystical experiences that help them overcome addiction. Scientific research is now suggesting that a host of psychoactive compounds — including psilocybin, LSD, ibogaine, and 5-MeO-DMT — can produce powerful mystical experiences that contribute to the success of those therapies.
Recent observational studies and surveys are suggesting that 5-MeO-DMT in particular may pack the right pharmacological punch to help lessen treatment-resistant addiction. Much of the benefit seems to point to the same thing Wilson was after: The intensity of the profound mystical experience.
Dr. Joseph Peter Barsuglia, a clinical and research psychologist specializing in psychedelics, who has contributed to scientific papers alongside other notable scholars in the field — including Dr. Rolland R. Griffiths at Johns Hopkins and Dr. Benjamin Kelemendi at Yale School of Medicine — believes that many of the advantages come from having a “complete mystical experience.” A deep expansion of the psyche and immersive experience may bring about lasting change in one’s perspective. It’s this kind of treatment Biden was after when visiting those Mexican clinics.
Barsuglia has had years of hands-on experience in precisely that mode of clinical space in Mexico, where toad venom is not a controlled substance. In 2015, he worked at Crossroads Treatment Center in Tijuana, primarily an addiction clinic that employed ibogaine and toad-derived 5-MeO-DMT as part of an addiction protocol for people hooked on opiates, stimulants, and alcohol. He was hired at the clinic, he says, at a time when there was no published research or known observational studies being done on 5-MeO-DMT to treat addiction. He saw firsthand how toad venom helped people like Biden.
“With 5-MeO-DMT, that medicine in particular brings people into a sacred experience, sometimes referred to as a near-death experience or ego-liberation,” says Barsuglia. “5-MeO-DMT can be very expansive, mood elevating, and spiritual or mystical.” It’s that mystical experience that tends to unite users with feelings of “interconnectedness or oneness with all of reality,” he notes. “A person is realizing that they are not separate, that they are fully a part of ultimate reality and that that reality in its essence is intelligent and loving.”
Isolation and disconnectedness are big pieces of the addiction puzzle. Feelings of disconnection from friends and family can drive people with a substance dependence further down the rabbit hole of habitual behavior. Biden admits in his memoir to that level of self-imposed seclusion, prior to seeking treatments, revealing “at one point I dropped clean off the grid, living in $59-a-night Super 8 motels off I-95 while scaring my family even more than myself.”
Biden was actually ahead of the curve seeking those therapies in 2014. Several years after Biden’s trip south of the border, in a study co-authored by Barsuglia in 2018, preliminary evidence began showing 5-MeO-DMT’s efficacy to occasion intense mystical experiences on par with those felt using psilocybin, but in a much shorter timeframe -10 to 30 minutes as opposed to six to eight hours — and at a lower dose in comparison to psilocybin. The authors noted that a “short duration of action may be advantageous for clinical interventions and for studying mystical-type experiences.”
Matt Sutton, a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, whose mission is to advance policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, confirms just how significant Biden’s admission is. “More and more, we are seeing high-profile people coming out of the closet about their drug use, which is incredibly important in the larger context of destigmatizing drug use,” says Sutton. “For far too long, there has only been one narrative: That drugs ruin lives and are a moral hazard associated with criminal behavior — when in fact this is just the narrative that was invented by prohibitionists, mainly to villainize people of color.”
There is no small irony here, in that Joe Biden was a key proponent of damaging legislation produced in a 1994 crime bill (and a lesser known law that was instituted in 1986) that created huge disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. Under the bill, first-time offenders were sentenced to five-year minimum sentences for a mere five grams of crack cocaine, yet it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. Because crack is a cheaper substitute to powder cocaine, it hit lower income neighborhoods harder.
Then-Senator Biden’s unfortunate bragging about co-creating the law with Strom Thurmond would haunt him for decades. In a 2008 hearing before the Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden recanted the 1994 bill, saying “I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then, because I think the disparity is way out of line.”
Had the president’s son been caught in America with either crack or toad venom, the latter of which has been a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S. since 2011, he’d have faced charges of five to ten years in prison. He was wise to seek treatments in Mexico, where toad venom is not a controlled substance.
As interest in the toad-derived substance grows, practitioners are increasingly employing synthetic versions of its main molecule, 5-MeO-DMT, in an effort to help with toad conservation issues. During hunting, toads are often scooped up by the thousands, dislocated from their habitats, and over-expressed of their fluids. Robert A. Villa, a research associate at the University of Arizona Desert Laboratory, who spends a good amount of his time trying to mitigate the harm done to toads by reckless hunters and overambitious practitioners, shared with me that “collecting secretions from the toad is no different to the toad than being endangered by a predator.”
Human predation has also been a problem in the toad-enthusiast community. As with any group, there are going to be some bad actors, and there have been accusations against some practitioners, including claims of psychological and physical violence. However, the murky legal standing of psychedelics makes it challenging for practitioners to be held accountable for their actions, for those accused to receive due process. In a conversation with Rak Razam and Mario Garnier, founders of the World Bufo Alvarius Congress (WBAC), the two talked about holding 5-MeO-DMT practitioners accountable for dangerous behavior. “What we’re seeing in the psychedelic and entheogenic community globally is essentially the dirty laundry,” said Razam. “We’re seeing the negativity and growing pains, and the necessary maturation of a culture that is crystallizing around this work. Part of that is that the positive stuff doesn’t often get reported. The negative reports make the headlines.”
The tendency of the press to focus on the oddity or salaciousness of stories involving drugs is nothing new, but that may wane as public attitudes shift and psychedelic use is more widely accepted.
“It’s good for people to look past their stereotypes and political positions and see that there’s something really meaningful in an admission like this from Hunter Biden,” says Barsuglia. “It’s easy to stigmatize someone who has an addiction. It’s easy to label people. I hope people can transcend characterization and political polarization and listen to the human experience of what he’s saying. Healing is a non-partisan issue.”
Image: Nicki Adams using modified photo by kuhnmi