Since the dawn of time, peyote has been part of the religious uses of the indigenous peoples of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The active ingredient in this small, spineless cactus is the hallucinogen mescaline, itself a fascinating substance.
In this post, we’ll cover:
- What peyote is
- The origins and history of peyote
- Effects of peyote
- Legal status of peyote
Alright, let’s get started!
What Is Peyote?
Lophophora williamsii, commonly called peyote, is a small, bulbous spineless cactus that grows mainly in the deserts of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States of America. The peyote cactus is central to the religious rituals of the Native American Church (NAC) and other indigenous groups of North America.
The peyote cactus is among the most recognized psychoactive plants worldwide. It is known by many names, including: cactus pudding, challote, devil root, earth cactus, hikuli, hikuri, mescal button, peote, piote, and whiskey cactus.
Origins of Peyote
The peyote cactus typically grows in chalky, calcareous, or clay soils beneath bushes in groups or clusters. It is a slow-growing plant and only reaches maturity after 15 or 20 years in the wild, although it can be cultivated in 3 to 5 years.
In North America, peyote’s area of distribution ranges between Deming, New Mexico, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Sombrerete, Zacatecas encompassing the Rio Grande valley, the Tamaulipas mountains, the Mezquital river, and the Sierra Madre foothills.
What Does Peyote Look Like?
The peyote cactus is small and blue-green hallucinogenic plant. Unlike many cacti, it lacks spines. The size and shape of peyote vary, some formations reaching up to 20 centimeters in diameter.
Other shapes are more like the classic peyote “buttons” that sometimes sport grayish white hair. The name Lophophora williamsii is based on this fuzzy or hairy characteristic and means “I have tufts.” When peyote flowers, the bloom is light pink.
History of Peyote
Anthropological evidence suggests that people began their use of peyote in pre-Columbian America. Recent carbon-testing studies date dried peyote buttons found in Texas back to 3780 to 3660 BCE. These samples were the oldest botanical samples of psychoactive mescaline ever found.
There is no consensus about which indigenous peoples of northern Mexico were first to use peyote, but later they shared their knowledge and practices with the Huicholes, Coras, and Mexicaneros and the use of peyote in religious ceremony starts to appears in ritual carvings preserved in volcanic rocks dating from that era.
Traditional Use of Peyote
Peyote is still a sacrament various native peoples of Mexico including the Nayeeris (Coras), Wixarika (Huicholes), O’dham (Tepehuanos), Yaquis, Yoemes (Mayos), Raramuris (Tarahumara), Purépechas and Chichimecas. The use of peyote is also sacred in the southern United States among such as the Apaches, Cherokee, Sioux or Lakota, Dinè (Navajos), and others for at least 5,000 years.
Although there has been some conflict in the past (see the legal section below for details), members of the Native American Church (NAC) are now allowed to use peyote under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Peyote and its active component, mescaline, were psychedelic substances mentioned often in Western literature, particularly after mescaline was synthesized in its pure form. Aldous Huxley wrote about mescaline in 1954 in The Doors of Perception, and popularizing its effects.
Chemical Composition and Dosage
Louis Lewin published the first chemical study on peyote in 1888, marking the first time that an article about a psychoactive plant reached publication in the West. Specifically, he wrote about isolating an alkaloid he named anhalonine, which is now known to be a compound of multiple alkaloids.
In 1919 mescaline became the second psychoactive alkaloid isolated from a plant, formally identified as 3,4,5-Trimethoxy-B-Phenethylamine. Over 50 different psychoactive alkaloids have since been isolated from the peyote cactus, alkaloid content makes up about 8% of its dry weight.
Mescaline is a phenylethylamine, a category of substances that are similarly structured to medications such as bronchodilators and antidepressants, catecholamines, such as the neurotransmitters adrenaline and dopamine, and amphetamines such as MDA or MDMA.
Ceremonial users typically ingest 30 to 150 grams of dry, pulverized peyote, or four to twelve peyote buttons, although some participants in certain ceremonies may consume more throughout the night. Sometimes a peyote infusion is prepared containing alkaloids and consumed.
Dosage of Mescaline
A standard dose of oral mescaline is 150 to 700 milligrams. Typical mescaline doses are calculated based on 3.75 mg of mescaline per kg/body weight.
- Threshold dose: 100 mg
- Low dose: 100 to 200 mg
- Average dose: 200 to 300 mg
- High dose: 300 to 500 mg
- Very high dose: 500 to 700 mg
Effects of Peyote
The small, spineless peyote may appear to be vulnerable to predators in its natural habitat, but its unpleasant taste deters desert animals from consuming it. It is alkaloids that are responsible for this peculiar taste, and many of them have psychoactive properties that cause altered perception in adequate amounts. The best known of the alkaloids and the primary active component of peyote is mescaline.
The onset of effects of peyote is typically two to four hours and the entire experience is sustained for about six additional hours before gradually the experience falls away. The entire experience is usually about 10 to 14 hours.
The effects of peyote and mescaline, its main psychoactive alkaloid, are similar to the standard psychedelic effects you might expect with ayahuasca, LSD, MDMA, psilocybin or magic mushrooms, and DMT.
Peyote induces profoundly altered perception, cognition, and consciousness like these other substances. It can also produce visions with eyes open and closed, an increase in psychological insight, sensory perceptions, spiritual, transcendent experiences, and changes in perception of time and space such as flashbacks.
Peyote is somewhat more stimulating than ayahuasca or psilocybin mushrooms and can change body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Dilation of pupils and sweating is also possible.
In some rare instances a user might experience a classic “bad trip” complete with disturbing visions and realizations—but this is said to be part of the experience. The strongest hallucinations involve depersonalization, loss of space-time context, and the experience of the presence of the divine.
Legal Status of Peyote
According to the DEA’s peyote “drug use fact sheet”, in the US the use of peyote is banned. This restriction is premised on the notion that psychedelics are not medically useful and that they are ripe for substance abuse—despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Mescaline, the psychoactive alkaloid in peyote, is listed on Schedule I along with cannabis—even though each has solidly recognized medical uses. However, the ingestion of peyote is permitted in ceremonial contexts for members of the Native American Church.
(For a useful breakdown on the different peyote and mescaline laws from place to place, see Erowid’s list.)
Healthcare: Is Peyote Safe?
Peyote is known for producing intense experiences and it has slightly stimulating effects, so it should not be combined with other stimulants. Especially for anyone prone to anxiety, or with a history of cardiovascular illness, seek medical advice before using peyote.
However, according to a poison control review of peyote and mescaline exposure cases, even over-exposure is not fatal: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20170392/
For more on the stimulating side effects of mescaline, see this sheet from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Anytime one endeavors to use any psychedelic substance, there are three core factors to consider to help reduce the risk: dose, one’s mental readiness, and the setting or context in which it will be used. When you’re taking peyote, consider that it may take hours for the effects to completely appear, so you need a place where you can relax and wait in comfort—and resist taking too much.
Just like any other psychedelic, the effects of peyote and mescaline depend to an important degree on the user’s mental state. Some believe that psychedelics are nonspecific amplifiers of consciousness, meaning that they will amplify whatever your mental state already is. This is why using peyote in situations of depression, stress, or trouble takes a seriously supportive context.
People with a history of psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, psychosis, or suicidal thoughts should refrain from using mescaline outside a clinical context, as there is a risk of decompensation.
Forms of Peyote Use
Users can ingest peyote fresh, of course. Many users dry the plant and pulverize it into powder to consume that way, or to then liquefy with water or mix with fruit or chocolate or something else to hide the taste.
Traditionally, the occasion dictated the manner of consumption. During the Huichol pilgrimage peyote is ingested fresh, after its harvest in a communal ritual after the pilgrimage. In modern Native American Church ceremonies users pulverize the peyote or infuse the buttons in water, and then consume the peyote during all-night ceremonies.
Prevalence of Peyote Use
Although both are relatively well-known, neither mescaline nor peyote are often consumed in Western society. In results from the Global Drug Survey of 2017, it is not even listed among the 40 substances surveyed. This may in part be because the necessary dose of mescaline is comparatively high, and its extraction and synthesis is costly and difficult. It is rare to see synthetic mescaline and peyote is a slow-growing and threatened species (more on this below).
The ceremonial use of peyote within the Native American Church, which has about 250,000 members in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, is ongoing. Members of the church recount the peyote origin myth in which the Peyote Woman shows how to experience a personal quest and supernatural encounter with the peyote plant.
There is some evidence that peyote alkaloids help the body release progesterone. Research also indicates that the mescaline in peyote interacts with the body’s serotonin receptors, particularly 5HT2A.
Modern North American Peyote Conservation
The only native peyote habitat in the US spans about 1,250 square miles along the southern border of Texas. Called the peyote gardens, this region has been used for ceremonial reasons by indigenous people for thousands of years.
According to a 1981 US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) memorandum, peyote became incorporated into NAC ritual between 1870 and 1885. This is at the heart of its exemption.
Today, members of the NAC are united by their belief in the “Great Spirit” and the use of peyote is central to the church’s ritual. For this reason, the destruction of the natural habitat of peyote is also burning out one of the largest indigenous religions in the US.
There has been a conservation crisis facing the US peyote population since at least 1995, the year botanist Edward Anderson described his return to the Texas peyote gardens in a paper published in the Cactus and Succulent Journal. 30 years after his original research expedition to the area, Anderson documented a serious tension between Texas landowners and peyoteros.
According to Anderson, the gravest threat to the peyote cactus is not the ceremonial use of peyote buttons. Rather, landowners closing their ranches to peyoteros and engaging in root-plowing, preparing land for cattle grazing by ripping plants up at the root, that threatened the peyote plant’s long-term health.
Reportedly, all of the Texas land where peyote grows is privately owned. Few peyoteros are registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as legally able to collect peyote. There are significant barriers to licensing new peyoteros: high amounts of capital and the need for the social connections with landowners. And of course peyote remaining listed as a Schedule I substance with “no currently accepted medical use” furthers the difficulty in both accurately assessing peyote decline and conserving the plant.
Final Thoughts on Peyote
As Western medicine finally seems to stumble into stride with its peers finding value in plant-based therapeutics, hallucinogens are having a moment in the sun. Ideally this will lead to greater understanding and preservation of this sacred tradition.