Peyote is a spineless cactus from the deserts of Mexico and the United States that contains mescaline. Since ancient times, different native peoples of North America and Mesoamerica have traditionally utilized peyote for medical and religious purposes.
Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a spineless cactus that grows mainly in the deserts of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States of America. It commonly grows under bushes, and usually appears in groups ranging from three to more than fifty. Its growth is very slow and reaching maturity can take up to 15 or 20 years.
Peyote’s area of distribution falls inside an irregular diamond that goes from Deming, New Mexico, to Corpus Christi, Texas, Sombrerete, Zacatecas and back to Deming. The zone that encompasses this diamond is the Rio Grande valley to the north, the mountains of Tamaulipas to the east, the basin of the tributaries of the right bank of Rio Grande de Santiago and the Mezquital river to the south and the foothills of the Sierra Madre, the Sierra de Durango and the Sierra de Nayarit. It usually grows in calcareous or chalky, clay soils from the Cretaceous formation north of this region.
Its shape and size is variable, some with circular shapes reaching up to 20 centimeters in diameter. There are other shapes that are similar to a carrot or a turnip, but without leaves or branches. It is divided radially by grooves that can be straight, slightly spiral, sinuous, or more complicated shapes that form “buttons”. These buttons have small tufts of thick grayish white hair. The name of peyote’s modern botanical classification, Lophophora, is due to this characteristic, which means “I have tufts“. In the center of its upper part there is a small point of very thick fuzz, where a light pink flower appears at certain times of the year.
It is known by many names among which the following stand out: peyote, piote, hikuli, hikuri, devil root, challote, cactus pudding, mescal button, peote, earth cactus and whiskey cactus.
The use of peyote in Pre-Columbian America
Anthropological evidence found in South Texas and in certain places in Mexico suggests that the practices and/or rituals in which peyote was used by native peoples of these zones may have an approximate age of up to 5700 years. Recent studies through carbon-testing have dated the age of dried peyote buttons found in cave number 5 of Shumla, Rio Grande, Texas and the buttons turned out to be between 3780 and 3660 BCE. These buttons still contained 2% mescaline, making them the oldest psychoactive botanical sample ever found.
During the time of the Spanish occupation, certain missionaries described practices related to this cactus. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, for example, wrote in 1560 about certain peoples – Toltecs and Chichimecas – who had been using peyote since 1890 years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards to the territory they inhabited, according to indigenous narratives.
There is no general agreement about which people were the first to use peyote, some authors suggest that it was the Tarahumara, others claim that it was the Chichimeca people to first discover its psychoactive properties – both indigenous peoples of northern Mexico. Later this knowledge was shared with the Coras, Huicholes, Tepehuanos and Mexicaneros, among others.
The ethnologist Carl Lumholtz estimates that the use of peyote actually dates back more than three thousand years, since a symbol used by the Tarahumara in peyote ceremony appears in ritual carvings dating from that era and since preserved in volcanic rocks.
Traditional contemporary use of peyote
Peyote is considered sacred among different native peoples of Mexico such as the Wixarika (Huicholes), Nayeeris (Coras), O’dham (Tepehuanos), Raramuris (Tarahumara), Yaquis, Yoemes (Mayos), Purépechas and Chichimecas. Also in the southern United States by people such as the Sioux or Lakota, Cherokee, Apaches, Dinè (Navajos), among others. Most of these people live in the deserted cultural area defined as Aridoamérica, an arid zone north of Mesoamerica.
There are more than 40 nations of American Indians in many parts of the United States and Canada who use peyote as a religious sacrament. Their tradition is younger compared to certain Mexican tribes, mainly the Wixarikas, Coras and Tarahumara. The contact between these different peoples originated mainly from commercial and familiar relations between them and it seems that the first native North Americans who learned to use peyote were the Kiowas and Comanches during their visits to indigenous groups in northern Mexico.
One of the most important figures in the expansion of the use of peyote in modern times was John Wilson, who developed a ceremony called “Great Moon” and was responsible for bringing this knowledge to most of the northern tribes of North America. In contrast to these ceremonies, a tribal chief named Elk Hair developed the “Little Moon” ceremonies, which entirely eliminated the Christian imposition on the rite and recognized First Nation Indians as the only ones who could celebrate these ceremonies.
Today the Native American Church (NAC) continues with the rites initiated by John Wilson. In this Christian-influenced church peyote is used as a sacrament and has about 250,000 followers. Members of the NAC are allowed to use peyote under the United States Indigenous Religious Freedom Act.
In Mexico, the worldview of the Wixarika, also known as the Huichol, is intimately related to peyote. The life of this indigenous people revolves around a calendar that includes offerings, pilgrimages, festivals and celebrations related to the knowledge bestowed by peyote. Among the variety of nations that consume peyote, the Wixarika are considered its guardians, given that their tradition of using the cactus is older.
One of the most well-known and important rites of the Wixarika peyote cult is the pilgrimage to Wirikuta in the desert of San Luis de Potosí, sacred place of the Huichol people as well as certain other groups. This pilgrimage is the most sacred act within their festive calendar, since it is when the peyote collection that will provide for the celebrations for the rest of the year occurs. The Wixarikas traditionally travel on foot, although today the pilgrimage of more than 400km that separate them from Wirikuta is made by bus and vans.
Peyote and mescaline were the first psychedelic substances to which Westerners had access, and for this reason they are probably the substances that have had the greatest presence in Western literature. Mescaline was the first psychedelic substance synthesized in its pure form. Aldous Huxley wrote about it in 1954 and popularized its effects in “The Doors of Perception”. The books of Carlos Castaneda also popularized interest in peyote. Mescaline was also the first psychedelic substance that aroused the interest of scientists.
Chemical composition and Dosage
In 1888 Louis Lewin published the first chemical study on peyote – the first time that an article about a psychoactive plant in the West was published. He isolated an alkaloid he called anhalonine, which today is considered to be a mixture of various alkaloids. Years later, between 1895 and 1896, Arthur Heffter published two more studies on peyote, in which he described having isolated four different alkaloids: mescaline, peyotine, anhalondinine and lophophorine. Heffter also performed self-tests to find the psychoactive action of these alkaloids and discovered that isolated mescaline had effects almost indistinguishable from peyote. In 1919 Mescaline was identified as 3,4,5-Trimethoxy-B-Phenethylamine, and thus became the second psychoactive alkaloid isolated from a plant. The first was harmine of Peganum harmala.
Subsequently more than 50 different alkaloids have been isolated in the peyote plant, and the alkaloid content is around 8% of the dry plant weight.
Mescaline is a phenylethylamine, a class of substances that share a similar structure. Other substances in this group are amphetamines, such as MDA or MDMA, catecholamines, such as the neurotransmitters dopamine and adrenaline and many medications – antidepressants, bronchodilators, etc.
Regarding the dosage of the plant, in ceremonial contexts, 30 to 150 grams of dry and pulverized peyote per person are usually ingested. The amount in buttons is usually four to twelve peyote buttons, although in certain ceremonies participants may consume more throughout the night. Sometimes an infusion of peyote is prepared, and after blending the buttons, the equally bitter liquid containing the alkaloids is consumed.
Dosage of mescaline
The active dose of oral mescaline hydrochloride is between 150 and 700 milligrams. The usual doses of mescaline have been calculated based on 3.75mg of mescaline per kilogram of body weight.
- Threshold dose: 100mg
- Low dose: 100-200mg
- Average dose: 200-300mg
- High dose: 300-500mg
- Very high dose: 500-700mg
The first written documentation of peyote in detailed form were those of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who reported frightful visions, laughing, the urge to fight, courage, protection from dangers; besides being a resource used in times of thirst or hunger.
Peyote has a bitter and pungent taste, and usually induces nausea and more rarely vomiting. Synthetic mescaline also produces nausea and vomiting, although to a lesser extent, so it seems that the effect is not only due to the other alkaloids present in the plant but an effect of mescaline itself.
The effects of peyote take some time to present. This period of onset of the effects can last from 2 to 4 hours. The experience is later sustained for about 6 more hours before gradually declining. The total duration of the experience is usually around 10-14 hours.
The effects induced by peyote, and its main psychoactive alkaloid, mescaline, belong to the group of so-called “classical psychedelic” effects, together with LSD, psilocybin mushrooms (psilocybin), ayahuasca and DMT. Peyote shares the ability to induce profound changes in perception, consciousness and cognition with this group of substances. Visions can appear with eyes open and closed, an increase in sensory perceptions – brighter colors, sound is perceived in greater depth – as well as experiences of psychological insight and transcendent and spiritual experiences and changes in the perception of space, time and one’s self-image.
Peyote is slightly more stimulating than psilocybin mushrooms or ayahuasca. Since mescaline belongs to the phenylethylamine group and its structure is similar to other psychoactive substances such as amphetamine or MDMA, it shares some of the stimulant effects of these, although to a lesser extent. It has not been reported that mescaline or peyote have addictive potential, and in fact some communities of the Native American Church use peyote to treat problems of addiction to alcohol and other substances.
Prevalence of Use
Peyote and mescaline, although a relatively well-known substance due to publicity in the 1950’s-70’s, is still a substance very infrequently consumed in Western society. In results from the Global Drug Survey of 2017, it is not even listed among the 40 substances surveyed. In previous decades some people believed they had used mescaline, although in many cases, according to some authors, it was probably LSD. The dose of mescaline is relatively high compared to other substances sold on the illicit market, its synthesis or extraction is expensive and difficult, with the result that synthetic mescaline is not usually found on the black market. Peyote is a protected and slow-growing species, and one must ingest a substantial amount of buttons to experience psychoactive effects. Therefore, the prevalence of consumption of peyote and mescaline is considerably low compared to other substances.
As for people who consume peyote in ceremonial contexts, it is estimated that the Native American Church has around 250,000 members in Mexico, the United States and Canada. The members of this church usually use peyote with some regularity. According to data from 2003, the Huichol population comprises only about 44,000 people.
The psychoactive alkaloid of peyote, mescaline, is a substance controlled by the 1971 Vienna Convention and is included as Schedule I. It is therefore considered a substance whose use, sale and manufacture is prohibited. However, the peyote plant is not included on the lists of the conventions, and its regulation depends on the legislation of each country. Thus, in Canada mescaline is classified as Schedule III, and peyote is explicitly exempt from regulation if it is not prepared for ingestion, while in Brazil, France, Italy and other countries peyote is considered illegal. Other countries, such as Spain, do not mention peyote on their lists of controlled plants, although this does not mean that the sale of peyote can not be considered an illegal act.
In the case of US legislation, the use of peyote is only allowed in ceremonial contexts for people belonging to the Native American Church.
The Mexican government was one of the countries that, upon joining the 1971 agreement and ratifying it on February 20, 1975, made an express reservation with respect to its application. Certain indigenous ethnic groups that traditionally use wild plants containing psychotropic substances among those listed as Schedule I, peyote being among them, exist in Mexico’s territory. Thus, the peyote cactus is not strictly prohibited or regulated, since it is not included in any section of the General Health Law and its use is allowed by the Huichols. Even so, peyote is considered an endangered plant, so its collection is prohibited, except in cases of traditional use by indigenous peoples.
Health and Risk Reduction
Due to the possibility of intense experiences that generate anxiety, people with a history of cardiovascular diseases, particularly those who are taking medication to control these pathologies and who have reduced physical activity due to medical advice should refrain from using peyote.
Peyote has slightly stimulating effects, so it should not be combined with other stimulating substances.
As with any psychedelic substance, it is extremely important to consider three factors when it comes to reducing the risks associated with its use: the dose, the set, or one’s prior mental state, and the setting, meaning the context in which it is used.
Regarding the dose it is important to know that the effects of mescaline and peyote can take up to two hours to appear, so one can make the mistake of believing that a dose was insufficient, re-administer and wind up taking a dose that is too high. It is important to calculate the dose in advance and wait for a sufficient amount of time before deciding to increase the dose.
As with any classical psychedelic, the effects of mescaline and peyote depend to a large extent on the mental state of the person taking it. Some researchers have called psychedelics “nonspecific amplifiers of consciousness”, so their effects can be vastly variable from person to person, as well as on different occasions. Therefore, it is necessary to be cautious when using peyote in situations of stress, depression, worries or crucial difficulties. In addition, the effects depend on the context in which these substances are used, as well as the company and the physical environment. For this reason, it is important to plan the way in which the peyote is going to be used appropriately.
People with a history of psychiatric conditions such as psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts and others should refrain from using mescaline if it is not in a clinical context, as there is a risk of increased symptoms and decompensation.
As with any psychedelic substance, unconscious material may emerge during the peyote experience. These experiences can be emotionally intense and sometimes involve feelings of fear, anguish and difficulty, in the same way that they can cause experiences of joy and ecstasy. For this reason, it is usually recommended to have an open and accepting attitude towards the actual content of the experience.
Studies conducted among the Native American population and members of peyote churches have evaluated the cognitive performance and the psychological state of people who have consumed peyote for years in these contexts. The results indicate that there is no evidence of psychological or cognitive deficits among those who have used peyote in the Native American Church for extended periods. These results, although interesting, can not be extrapolated to other contexts and forms of use.
Forms of Use
In ancient times, people with knowledge of peyote used it for different purposes, among them the following: treatment of wounds, snake bites, bruises, rheumatism, dizziness, anxieties, toothache, hemorrhages, headache, phthisis, fever, chest ailments, and lung diseases in general. In addition, curative properties were attributed to peyote in the treatment of different mental conditions.
Peyote can be ingested fresh, dried and powdered, liquefied with water or mixed with chocolate or fruit. Traditionally, the way in which it is consumed depends on the occasion and pertaining celebration. During the Huichol pilgrimage to Wirikuta, it is eaten fresh since it is consumed after its harvest; the lower part corresponding to the root is cleaned, and a thin, rough, dark brown layer is removed. Upon the return of the pilgrims, the other members of the community also eat fresh peyote at the welcome ceremony.
After concluding the pilgrimage, the peyote is dried and then ground to a powder. The powder can then be eaten in tablespoons or combined with chocolate or fruit.
In Native American Church ceremonies the peyote is pulverized or the buttons are placed in water, left to infuse, and then consumed in liquid during ceremonies that last all night.