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August 04, 2004

Riding high on the toad's back is even less attractive than it sounds. Kiss a frog and you will see your Prince (or Princess) Charming. Lick the back of a cane toad and you may have a brief vision of Prince Charming but it's likely to give way to nausea and heart palpitations. Say hello to Prince Chunder, writes Anne Fawcett.

The universally loathed cane toad secretes a deadly cocktail of venom from glands in its skin, successfully deterring most predators. Many a crocodile has come to a gut-wrenching end after snacking on a couple of cane toads. And yet rumours persist that, way up there in the far reaches of northern Queensland, bored folk have been known to lick them, and sometimes to even dry the critters out and smoke them.

Why, Radar asked, would a sane human being deliberately lick a cane toad?"They wouldn't," says Paul Dillon, of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

So why would anyone do it, sane or otherwise? Because the toad secretes bufotenine, a chemical compound that interferes with the action of some neurotransmitters, including serotonin.

In the 1960s, US government researchers fed synthetic bufotenine to prisoners and studied the effects. It was found to be similar to hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and mescaline.

Bufotenine can be found in certain species of mushroom and some grasses, as well as other toad species. At high doses, it can cause seizures, cardiac arrest or a nasty rash. But - and here's where the Queenslanders come in - in lower doses, it may have stimulatory effects or cause hallucinations.

It just happens that the good old Aussie cane toad is miles ahead of European and African species when it comes to bulk production of bufotoxins. Consequently, cane toads have been licked, smoked, dried, powdered and snorted by individuals in pursuit of a high.

According to Dillon, you'd probably get more stimulation out of a cup of coffee. Bufotenine's stimulatory effects usually lasted less than an hour and were often followed by a "deep but short sleep".

"The effects recorded are more like symptoms of mild poisoning than full-blown hallucination," he says.

And that's not accounting for the effects of anything else that happens to be sitting on the toad's skin when you lick it. If you happen to ingest a dose of salmonella, you could find yourself spending a week on the toilet as well.

On the other hand, it seems those Queenslanders know when to stop licking their toads. Radar's research did not unearth any verifiable cases of bufotenine overdose in Australia.

"I think, realistically, if there had been a death linked to a toad; it would probably have made the front page of the paper," Dillon says.

Bufotenine is listed as a Schedule 1 substance under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act. If you're caught with more than three grams of the stuff, you can be busted for trafficking bufotenine and may be given a hefty jail sentence.

"Under the act, it is treated in the same way as drugs like heroin and cocaine," Dillon says.

That, and the fact that bufotenine comes prepackaged in the ultimate deterrent, is probably why it hasn't caught on as the latest party drug.

As Dillon sums it up: "All in all, toad licking is not a good idea."

Radar is inclined to agree.

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