The Sonoran Desert Toad


Bufo alvarius

Tucson Citizen (AZ)
April 11, 2003


Deep Toad
Movie filmed here probes wild world of toad-licking

By Elaine Gale

The placid and squatty Colorado River toad, a familiar creature in the Sonoran Desert, has spawned an unusual cult of enthusiasts looking to expand their consciousness by, well, "licking toad."

The toad naturally generates a milky-looking venom, chock-full of chemically active compounds, that is squeezed from various glands, dried and smoked. Hard-core users prefer to lick the toad itself, which experts say is far more dangerous than smoking dried chips of the venom.

A 1994 article in the Wall Street Journal about the hallucinogenic amphibians was the inspiration for independent film director Toby Hubner to produce a low-budget movie in Tucson last spring about a rookie DEA agent who is sent undercover to Tucson to infiltrate a group of slackers who love to lick toad.

The movie, which ended up with a $200,000 budget after snaring some local investors, is titled "Deep Toad." It will have its world premiere at 9 p.m. tomorrow at The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St., as part of the Arizona International Film Festival.

"This movie is about being swallowed by the whale, going into the belly of the beast and emerging in a rite of purification," said Hubner, 59, who lives in Paris. He will shoot the second installment of the toad trilogy, "The Slender Bob Factor," in Tucson in late summer.

Best-selling author and health guru Andrew T. Weil, director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal article and described his personal experience with the effects of smoking toad as "slow and velvety, with a slight pressure in my head" that produced a "deep, peaceful and interior awareness."

Weil said collecting the venom doesn't harm or injure the toads, but actually licking venom off the toad's body will likely hurt the licker.

"It's a pretty violent intoxication when you lick the toad itself," said Weil, who published an article about his experience with smoking toad in a scholarly journal called Ancient Mesoamerica. "I've smoked toad venom twice in the name of science, but I've never licked a toad."

Jude McNally, managing director of Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, said they don't see many repeat offenders from the folks who call in after getting sick from experimenting with toad.

"There are so many adverse effects," he said. "While they may hallucinate, they're also likely to feel really sick which will compromise their euphoria."

In humans, he said, it causes shortness of breath, an increase in rate of breathing, changes in the heart rate, a drop in blood pressure and numbness inside the mouth.

Hubner, who shot his "Deep Toad" movie with live Colorado River toads and released them after the film was completed, said the only person in his crew who tried smoking the toad venom was the lead actor, whose character smokes toad in the movie and has a motley hallucinogenic trip.

"I didn't want to glorify this drug whatsoever," Hubner said. "I wanted the film to be a crucible to talk about the drug wars. It's a serious drug."

"I do think toad licking has a built in safety valve," explained McNally, who said the Arizona Poison Center has only a few cases each year where a person attempted to use toad as a recreational drug. "It's disgusting and someone would need to be pretty desperate to consider doing that for their recreation."

McNally said the more common cases are from dogs who die after swallowing a whole toad. If the dog is unable to vomit it up, the toxins are released from the toad's glands.

"Every once in a while, someone will try and eat a toad," said McNally. "But it's rare - or at least medium-rare."

Many locations in the film will be familiar to Tucsonans, including the Tucson Police Department headquarters, Bobo's Coffee Shop, Baja Fish and Tackle, Four Points Sheraton and a mothballed DC-10 at Tucson International Airport.

Also appearing in the film are former local newscasters April Brown and Tim Johnston, who plays a demented weatherman who likens the Old Pueblo to a "pig iron blast furnace." Tucson police officer Kevin Danaher, who died in 2002, and other local policemen appear in bust and interrogation scenes.

"The people in Tucson were so fantastic to make a movie with," Hubner said. "Everyone was so friendly and fresh."

Copyright (c) Tucson Citizen. All rights reserved.
Record Number: tuc2003041116340298


Producers: Garrard Glenn, Phil Doughty
Writer: Toby Hubner
Director: Toby Hubner
Director Of Photography: Roderick E. Stevens
Format: DV