A church claims to have created a drug that combines 'shrooms and toad venom. Experts are skeptical

Scientists are studying whether a religious group successfully synthesized a mythical, potent psychedelic

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published April 20, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Colorado River Toad (Getty Images/Mirko_Rosenau)
Colorado River Toad (Getty Images/Mirko_Rosenau)

A Texas church has claimed to invent a novel psychedelic drug used as its sacrament — and has ostensibly been giving it to members of its clergy as one might a communion wafer. But a recent chemical analysis has poured cold water on these religious claims. The Church of Psilomethoxin, founded in late 2021, claim that "magic" mushrooms cultivated with a toad venom extract produce the chemical psilomethoxin, which is a drug similar to both of the powerful psychedelics psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT, both of which are banned in most places on Earth.

"As far as I'm aware, almost nobody has ever synthesized the molecule, let alone ingested it."

5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) occurs naturally in many plants, and even humans make trace amounts; but is best known as the primary ingredient in the venom of the Colorado River toad (Incilius alvarius). For decades, people have been extracting the milky white goo from these amphibians which live throughout the American Southwest and vaporizing it to get one of the most intense psychedelic experiences known to humans.

Some people call 5-MeO-DMT the "God molecule" because the experience combines a huge adrenaline rush, vomiting and sometimes thrashing with otherworldly love and pure bliss. And it typically only lasts about 20 minutes, yet some research suggests this is enough to alleviate depression, anxiety and PTSD.

On the other hand, psilocybin, the drug that gives certain mushrooms a "magic" touch, can be a much more pleasant experience depending on the dose. Eating a few grams can trigger feelings of time dilation, enhanced colors, distorted visual effects and inner feelings of love, joy and connectedness to the universe. The experience can last four to six hours. It too can help mitigate mental illness — and humans have been eating these fungi for thousands of years.

Psilomethoxin, however, is a totally different story, according to Andrew Gallimore, a neurobiologist, pharmacologist and chemist based in Tokyo, Japan who studies psychedelics.

"It's a novel and unusual molecule in that it bears the ring substituents of both 5-MeO-DMT and psilocin — so it's a kind of hybrid of both molecules," Gallimore told Salon in an email. "However, until it's actually tested in humans, anything beyond that is pure conjecture. As far as I'm aware, almost nobody has ever synthesized the molecule (although a 10-step published synthesis does exist), let alone ingested it, so we don't even know if it's psychoactive."

The church claims to have taken the theoretical and made it possible through what they call "sacred synthesis" using phalaris grass, a plant that often contains 5-MeO-DMT, and mixing it in the substrate mushrooms grow in.

In other words, even if someone did cook up psilomethoxin in a lab or using a cake of mushroom mycelium, there's no evidence yet that it would have an intoxicating effect that will introduce you to God or the DMT entities, strange creatures that many people report seeing when they take the main ingredient in ayahuasca. Nonetheless, the Church of Psilomethoxin claims to have taken 5-MeO-DMT and given it to psilocybin-containing mushrooms, causing them to suck up the substance and spit out psilomethoxin (4-HO-5-MeO-DMT), which they have been giving to members who pay an annual fee of $55.55.

The idea isn't as crazy as it sounds. Alexander Shulgin, one of the most prolific psychedelic chemists in history, proposed that this might be possible based on the work of Dr. Jochen Gartz, a German mycologist and chemist. In 1988, Gartz authored a paper describing how adding chemicals to psilocybin mushrooms could influence them to generate new tryptamines, a class of drugs that includes psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT and psilomethoxin. Drawing from this research, Shulgin suggested toad venom could generate novel psychedelics — specifically psilomethoxin — if mixed with mushroom growing mediums.

The church claims to have taken the theoretical and made it possible through what they call "sacred synthesis" using phalaris grass, a plant that often contains 5-MeO-DMT, and mixing it in the substrate mushrooms grow in.

"[W]e believe this sacrament has been bestowed upon all of humanity for the purpose of helping humans ascend into fourth-density consciousness," the church's website reads. "Through our work, we hope to raise the vibration frequency and soul density of all our members, thereby aiding humanity into its ascension into higher states of consciousness."

The church responded to the paper in a lengthy post on its website, accusing the researchers of "attempting to capitalize on the burgeoning psychedelic renaissance."

Naturally, a pair of researchers were skeptical of these claims. Receiving a sample from an anonymous church member, Samuel Williamson and Dr. Alexander Sherwood from the Usona Institute, a non-profit psychedelics research organization, applied analytical chemistry techniques to see what was actually inside the sacrament.

The sample came in a non-specific capsule, but when ran through a mass spectrometry machine, which can easily detect the shape of molecules, no psilomethoxin was found. However, psilocybin and other naturally-occurring mushroom metabolites were found in the analysis. So while there are trip reports out there describing taking the Church of Psilomethoxin's signature psychedelic, it is most likely a placebo effect or just tripping from regular old mushrooms, the authors conclude. Their results were published on the preprint server ChemRxiv, meaning they have not yet been peer-reviewed.

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With this in mind, Sherwood and Williamson wrote, "it is evident that their [the church's] claims of producing a novel compound, psilomethoxin, by incorporating 5-MeO-DMT into the substrate of cultivated Psilocybe mushrooms are more akin to 'fungi fiction' than reality."

"The lack of evidence of novel compounds in the sample coupled with the implausibility of the proposed biosynthetic pathway suggests that the Church of Psilomethoxin is engaging in misleading marketing practices and may be misrepresenting the material that they are distributing," the authors added. "It is crucial for the scientific community to continue scrutinizing such claims and provide accurate information to the public, ensuring that the distribution and use of psychedelic substances are based on factual data and not on unsubstantiated assertions made by organizations like the Church of Psilomethoxin."

The church responded to the paper in a lengthy post on its website, accusing the researchers of "attempting to capitalize on the burgeoning psychedelic renaissance." Salon reached out to the church and will update this article if we hear back.

"First, it should be noted that the Church has never, at any time, laid claim to the fact that Psilomethoxin has ever been positively identified in its sacrament," the church wrote on its website. "Why? Because at this juncture, it is scientifically impossible to make such claims as there is no reference sample in existence. Our claims to the existence of Psilomethoxin, at this time, are solely based on faith, bolstered by our and our members' own direct experiences with the Sacrament."

Faith or not, it's not difficult or too terribly expensive to send a sample to a lab for analysis. Gallimore argued that this chemical analysis should have been performed long before the church began distributing and advertising the substance.

"Feeding a molecule to a live culture in the hope that it will be taken up and converted to a desired molecule is always going to be somewhat unpredictable — it's possible the molecule will fail to get into the mycelial cells or, if it does so, be metabolized to a different molecule or simply degraded," Gallimore said. "Hoping for a clean uptake of 5-MeO-DMT and transformation to psilomethoxin is a bit of a long shot. It certainly could work, but there's every chance it won't. Without knowing exactly how the Church went about this process, it's impossible to know whether their procedure might be optimized."

"The Church's claim that it is 'scientifically impossible' to confirm the presence or absence of the psilomethoxin molecule in their sample because there 'is no reference sample in existence' is frankly baffling and seems to betray a lack of understanding of how novel molecules are isolated and characterized from organic sources," Gallimore added.

Psilomethoxin could be still be synthetized through other means, but again, there is really no documented history of humans, not to mention animals, taking this drug or what its effects may be. It could turn out to be extremely toxic or have no effect at all. While in very rare cases some people have died from 5-MeO-DMT overdoses, psilocybin deaths are essentially unheard of. But we have absolutely no idea what psilomethoxin does to people.

"Whilst I'm entirely sympathetic to the idea that people should be free to alter their consciousness with whatever molecules they choose, as long as they're not harming anyone else in the process, people also have the right to full disclosure about the substances that groups such as the Church of Psilomethoxin are supplying," Gallimore said. "I also accept that the Church has never officially made explicit claims as to the content of their material 'sacrament.' However, 'faith' and 'direct experience' of this substance is not a substitute for proper chemical analysis, especially with a molecule with no history of use in humans."

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is a science and public health journalist whose reporting has appeared in Scientific American, STAT News, Undark, VICE, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy and science podcast Narcotica. His website is troyfarah.com and can be found on Twitter at @filth_filler

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5-meo-dmt Magic Mushrooms Psilocybin Psilomethoxin Psychedelics Science