The United States is in the throes of an addiction.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdose deaths topped 72,000 in 2017, with 49,000-plus of those caused by opioids. In October that same year, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. He’s extended that state of emergency two times—in January and April 2018—but so far it hasn’t gone much beyond that: bravado rhetoric with little action.
In July 2018, US senator Elizabeth Warren wrote an open letter to his administration, bluntly criticizing his attempts to address the issue and insisting they’ve fallen short again and again. Since then, few tangible measures have been initiated to try to curb access, and it remains to be seen, too, how effective these will be. In the meantime, the users’ thirst for the drug—and struggle to get off it—is something that continues.
Neal Catlett, a 38-year-old recovering opioid addict from Lexington, Kentucky, has some less traditional ideas to offer: Could there be a drug to “spiritually awaken” those who suffer? Could the venom from a toad be the antidote to help America kick its dependency?
I first met Catlett at the end of August 2016 while I was covering a protest march commemorating “Overdose Awareness Day” in New York, and he invited me to tag along to a “ceremony” he would be attending later that day in the West Village. The ceremony involved smoking the psychedelic venom from the Sonoran Desert toad—which, similar to ayahuasca, is said to help people kick their long-term drug dependency.
Curiosity, naturally, took hold of me. We met his “sitter,” a man who travels around the world to administer the venom. This wasn’t Catlett’s first time, and he credits the toxin with contributing to his healing—so much so that he plans to create clinics where others can test out the hallucinogens that saved his life.
Over the span of seven months, I visited Catlett in Lexington and photographed his daily life, as he searches for salvation and tries to help other addicts and those who are just curious about the spiritual journey.