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What’s Your Poison? Decoding the Use of Snake Venom as a Recreational Drug

58,000+ Indians die from snakebite every year, and many more likely suffer life-altering injuries after envenomation

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From relatively harmless coffee and masala chai, to unhealthy cigarettes, most of us have a choice of poison that fuels our day.

Some even rely on ‘recreational drugs’ to alter their state of consciousness and feel happy, relaxed, or stimulated.

Trouble finds them when these substances are dangerous, unhealthy, addictive and, in many cases, illegal.

The use of psychoactive drugs isn’t a recent phenomenon, scientific evidence suggests that poppy plants were cultivated in Eastern Europe before 4000 BCE (Before the Common Era).

Taking it a notch higher, in the last few years, there have been several clinical reports and news articles on the practice of using snake venom as a recreational drug. It became a headline recently when Indian YouTuber Elvish Yadav was arrested in a case of snake venom and snakes found at a rave party in Noida in November.

Forest departments, police and border security forces, too, claim to seize litres of snake venoms every now and then.

So, what's going on here?

Is it possible to smuggle litres of snake venom? Does snake venom have psychoactive properties? How dangerous is consuming snake venom for recreation?

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Getting High on Snake Bites?

Venom itself is a complex cocktail of various chemicals, mostly proteins, that have evolved over millions of years to help venom-producing animals (for example, snakes, spiders, and scorpions) catch their meal or defend themselves from aggressors and predators.

Some snakes, like cobras, king cobras, kraits, and mambas, produce toxic chemicals that cause neuromuscular paralysis upon being injected into the target prey/predatory animal (hence, called neurotoxins).

Chemicals in venoms can interfere with neurons, and it is theoretically possible that this can lead to hallucinations, numbness, and euphoria. This could be particularly true when the venom is injected in smaller doses.

However, the authenticity of reports claiming psychoactive properties of snake venom and their use for recreation is still questionable.

Some clinical case reports claim that these victims got snakes like cobras, kraits, and Russell’s vipers to bite their toes, lips and even tongue!

Unfortunately, these claims are rarely supported by photographic evidence and pictures of the snake species in question are never shown.

Since clinicians, too, are not trained in identifying snakes, the authenticity of these reports is questionable.

Moreover, those who claim to enjoy snake venom for recreation often consume it with other drugs like alcohol or lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Thus, psychedelic effects experienced by such ‘venom enthusiasts’ could be stemming from the use of such ‘ancillary’ drugs.

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How is Snake Venom Harvested?

Interestingly, snakes do not always inject venom when they bite. This is called 'dry bite'.

Since they produce venom to eat, or to avoid getting eaten, they often do not waste this precious cocktail on humans. After all, it takes a lot of time and energy to produce venom.

Being a scientist who has researched snake venoms for nearly half of my life, I can vouch for the fact that one can hardly get half a millilitre of venom when (legally) captured snakes are milked for science or antivenom production. In fact, most snake species yield even lesser amounts of venom.

Consequently, collecting litres of venom would take milking thousands of snakes, which is beyond the capacity of most thugs caught smuggling venom.

In the past, when such confiscated samples were sent for analysis to my lab at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, unsurprisingly, we didn’t find any trace of venom in them.

Thus, it is likely that these smugglers take advantage of buyers foolish enough to believe that the liquid being sold to them is (or contains) venom.

And to harvest the actual venom, these snakes are often illegally captured by untrained individuals, kept in stressful and unhealthy environments, and even harrased to force them to inject venom.

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Microdosing Snake Venom for Immunity

Insights into the possibility of using venom as a recreational drug could come from certain people who have attempted to inject themselves with snake venom in diluted amounts over a long period of time to gain (partial) immunity.

Bill Haast, the founder of Miami Serpentarium, whom many of us herpetologists admire, was one of them. In addition to claiming that snake venoms can be used to treat various diseases, including polio, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, he was (in)famous for self-immunisation.

How was Haast able to do this? When our immune system encounters foreign particles, be it bacteria, viruses, or a snake venom toxin, it often produces antibodies against them.

If the amount of venom injected is too little, then one could accumulate these protective antibodies over time and not suffer the clinically severe effects of snake venoms.

In fact, because of this antibody build-up, Haast could donate blood to save snakebite victims. It is also fascinating that he lived for over 100 years!

Others, like Steve Ludwin, who emulated Haast, also claim to age slowly and recount experiences similar to those who claim to have used snake venoms for recreation.

Therefore, it is certainly possible that administering smaller doses of venoms over time could offer protection from clinically severe effects while also eliciting psychedelic effects.

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But… a Word of Caution

There are many reasons why you would want to stay away from using snake venoms (or any other venom or poison) for recreation.

  • They are dangerous!

Snake venoms contain compounds that cause a variety of toxic effects, both short-term and long-term.

Venoms of many snakes contain toxins that have been sculpted by nature over millions of years to cause harm to rodents.

Because we share relatively similar physiology with these four-legged mammals, the toxic effect of snake venom on our bodies is collateral damage.

They can inflict neuromuscular paralysis or extremely dangerous coagulopathy (impairment of blood clotting pathways), both of which can put you in ICU.

Hence, injecting even slightly larger amounts of venom can readily send anyone to the hospital.

It is also advisable to stay away from other venoms and poisons as well. 'Toad licking’, is also a fad in parts of the world. Bufonid toads that we see around us are extremely toxic and contain poisons that can cause heart attacks even in minor doses. So, don’t lick them!

  • They can cause harm in the long run.

Despite the lack of noticeable effects in the short run, long-term exposure to snake venom can be harmful and hazardous.

Our research has shown that the venoms of snakes, including those that are often considered clinically unimportant in India, can cause severe kidney injuries in mice, even in small amounts.

  • It is illegal.

Snakes, like most wild animals in India, are protected by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Harming snakes or catching them without permission from the Forest Departments in the State and/or Centre will land you behind bars, just like the Bigg Boss-winning YouTuber.

(Dr Kartik Sunagar is an Associate Professor, the Centre for Ecological Sciences, and Adjunct Faculty, Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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