The Essential Guide to Peyote
(Mescaline, Mescalito, Anhalonium, Buttons)
Peyote is the common (Nahuatl- or Aztec-derived) name for Lophophora williamsii, an endangered cactus native to northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. For use as an entheogen, the button-shaped fruits of the plant are usually chewed to release various psychedelic alkaloids—the most notable of which is mescaline, the primary psychoactive compound. Peyote can also be made into a tea by infusing water with raw peyote buttons.
This cactus has long been been important to Native American ceremonial traditions, for which it remains legal in the US under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. It is also used throughout the world in a wide variety of other settings, including meditation and psychotherapy.
Interestingly, peyote may have been the first psychedelic to capture mainstream Western attention—long before LSD and psilocybin did. Not only was it frequently mentioned in the early reports of anthropologists and missionaries to the New World, it was also popularized by the pioneering first-hand accounts of scholarly psychonauts like William James, Aldous Huxley, and Humphry Osmond, who originally came up with the term “psychedelic.”
History & Stats02
The traditional use of peyote is thought to have originated among the Tonkawa or Mescalero tribes of Texas and New Mexico, but it also has strong cultural ties with the Chichimeca and Tarahumara (Rarámuri), as well as the Cora (Náayarite), Huichol (Wixáritari), and other groups to whom it later spread. Given the vast size of peyote’s native habitat, which extends from the north of the Rio Grande in Texas to the Chihuahuan Desert and Tamaulipan mezquital in Mexico, its use may well have originated independently among a variety of Native American tribes.
Traditional uses are likewise diverse and by no means limited to ritual. The Tarahumara, for example, have used it for long-distance endurance foot races and as a topical analgesic for wounds, burns, and painful joints. Among the Huichol, it has also been used by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
The first non-natives to encounter peyote use in the Americas were probably Catholic missionaries and conquistadors during the 16th century. Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún, for instance, described a Huichol peyote ceremony held out in the desert and estimated that such practices may have been at least 1,980 years old. In referring to the cactus, he used the original Nahuatl name, peiotl, meaning “cocoon silk” in reference to the woolly tuft. Unfortunately, the massive destruction of Aztec records by earlier conquistadors meant that little could be known for certain. More recently, with evidence from the Shumla Caves site in Texas, researchers have been able to date ceremonial peyote use to at least 5,700 years ago.
During the conquest of the New World, peyote was near-universally condemned by Europeans who associated its use with devil-worship, cannibalism, and witchcraft and attempted to stamp it out. One persistent peyote user, an Acaxee from Mexico, is said to have had his eyes gouged out as punishment and his stomach sliced open in the shape of a crucifix, leaving dogs to eat his insides. Suppression of the use of peyote continued throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries too—particularly after Indians had been forcibly displaced to reservations.
At the same time, the ceremonial use of peyote became all the more important to Native Americans as an emblem of their emerging pan-Indian identity and their ongoing struggle against the so-called “manifest destiny” of their oppressors. Of course, it was also a means of coping, spiritually, with the subordination and loss of their culture. As a result, native groups formerly at war with each other began to cooperate in a spirit of amicability, spreading peyote use beyond the Southwest to the Great Plains, Midwest, and even into Canada.
During this process the traditional ceremony was overlaid with Christian elements to help safeguard the new religion as a legitimate form of Christian worship. For example, Jesus was invoked alongside animal spirits and the “peyote road” (right way of living) was conflated with Christian values. Upon the altar, the “roadman” who led the ceremony not only kept a large sacred peyote button (the “Peyote Chief” or “Father Peyote”) but also a Christian Bible. Interestingly, Peyotism, as it was called, was devoid of all the usual Christian guilt. In fact, it positioned Native Americans as much closer to God than whites, since it was “the whites,” they said, who crucified Jesus—not the ancestrally separated Indians.
By 1885, despite sustained opposition from missionaries and government officials, the precursor to the Native American Church (NAC) of today was more or less fully established. It was formally registered with a charter in 1918 and, by the 1940s, had opened branch chapters throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
In 1960 a landmark court case, presided over by Arizona Judge Yale McFate, finally legitimized peyote as having “a similar relation to the Indians—most of whom cannot read—as does the Holy Bible to the white man.” He also pointed out that suppression of its use was unconstitutional, since it obstructed religious freedom. By this time, the NAC had roughly 225,000 members (up from 13,300 in 1922) and when peyote (not just mescaline) was classified Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, a special exemption was made for religious use among Native Americans. But it wasn’t until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 that it was truly enshrined as a right. Amendments in 1994 clarified and extended this right to all 50 states.
Of course, none of this progress took place in isolation. As early as the late-1800s/early-1900s, non-native intellectuals and scientists—including the neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, the philosopher William James, and the occultist Aleister Crowley—were experimenting with peyote for themselves. In fact, the drug company Parke-Davis was even promoting their own liquid peyote extract as an effective “cardiac tonic” (with no mention whatsoever of its psychoactive effects). Other in-depth studies, conducted by German and Austrian scientists, led to the isolation of mescaline in 1897 and its synthesis (the first of any psychedelic) in 1919.
Later, in 1947, having learned of Nazi experiments exploring mescaline as a possible “truth serum,” the US government began its own secretive program along the same lines, codenamed “Project CHATTER.” This project later gave up on mescaline and turned its attention to LSD, but was ultimately deemed a failure in 1953.
In the same year, Aldous Huxley first tried mescaline under the supervision of psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, an experience he described in The Doors of Perception as more valid than consensus reality—showing him “for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large … an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.” Two years later, as part of a documentary for the BBC, Osmond also gave mescaline to a British Member of Parliament, his friend Christopher Mayhew. And while Mayhew described his own experience in terms similar to Huxley’s, as a state of complete bliss outside of time and space, a committee of “experts” evidently disagreed with its validity and the footage never aired.
Nevertheless, peyote was becoming well known. Throughout the 1960s, a number of anthropologists accompanied the Huichol on peyote hunts (spiritual journeys to gather the cacti) and, in 1968, Carlos Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan with his own firsthand accounts of peyote visions.
According to the Global Drug Survey in 2014, only in Mexico was either mescaline or peyote (or in this case both) among the top 20 drugs for past month usage. Peyote was taken by 6.4% and mescaline by 4.4% of 643 Mexican survey respondents.
Of course, we cannot generalize current usage statistics from such limited data, but it does give us some idea of its popularity relative to other substances. Unfortunately, precise usage statistics for peyote aren’t really available because surveys tend to lump it together with other substances like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA. Hence, SAMHSA’s 2014 finding that 0.4% of the US population used “hallucinogens” in the past month is fairly meaningless.
That said, we can trace the popularity of peyote over time by looking at its appearance in publications and Google searches:
The number of publications related to peyote and mescaline peaked in the 1940s and 50s, followed by a much larger spike in the 1960s and 70s—during the psychedelic revolution and roughly coincidental with the publication of Carlos Castaneda’s books. Interest spiked again in the 1990s, presumably due to the Mexican government’s 1991 listing of peyote as an endangered species and the 1994 amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Published mentions steadily decreased over the next decade or so, possibly because of the rising popularity of other psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin.
Google searches, meanwhile, have remained fairly steady for peyote since 2004—although searches for mescaline have decreased. Searches for peyote did reach an all-time high in December 2014 (and again in May 2015) but this was most likely in relation to its appearance in the video game Grand Theft Auto V. Unsurprisingly, most Google searches for peyote come from Mexico, the United States, and Canada. (The popularity of the search term in Uruguay likely has more to do with the Uruguayan band El Peyote Asesino.)
Something of a “little green chemical factory,” peyote contains more than 60 different alkaloids, many of which are at least potentially psychoactive to varying degrees. These include tyramine (0.5-1 mg/g), hordenine (5-8 mg/g), pellotine (14-17 mg/g), and anhalonidine (14 mg/g). But the primary psychoactive alkaloid is mescaline (15-30 mg/g).
Mescaline binds to virtually all serotonin receptors in the brain but has a stronger affinity for the 1A and 2A/B/C receptors. It’s structurally similar to LSD and often used as a benchmark hallucinogen when comparing psychedelics.
Like nearly all hallucinogens, the psychedelic effects of mescaline are likely due to its action on serotonin 2A receptors.
Safety and toxicity
A 2005 study into the ceremonial use of peyote among Native American populations found there to be no detrimental long-term effects. It should be noted, however, that its use in other contexts may not be as safe (remember: set and setting). Indeed, later studies have found an association between prior mental health problems and “bad trips”, although peyote appears to present little risk of flashbacks, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).
As far as overdosing on peyote is concerned, a lethal dose has never been established. But if one does exist, it’s likely to be around 20-80 times the effective dose—or upwards of 60 cacti in one sitting! Of course, this certainly doesn’t mean that peyote is entirely safe, since there are a number of specific contraindications to be aware of (see Precautions section below). However, it does suggest that peyote is generally very well tolerated in most healthy people.
A light dose, according to Erowid, is 50-100g fresh peyote buttons (the bulbous above-ground fruit of the cactus plant) or 10-20g dry weight, which equates in either case to roughly 3-6 mid-sized buttons. Moderate doses range up to 150g fresh or 30g dry (6-12 buttons), while strong doses range up to 200g fresh or 40g dry (8-16 buttons). Anything above this is considered heavy.
Bear in mind that alkaloid content tends to vary according to peyote buttons’ age, with older specimens generally being the more potent. Growing location and season of harvest (ideally winter) can also affect their potency.
What to expect
Within 30 minutes to an hour after ingestion, most people begin to experience some form of physiological distress, such as nausea, discomfort, fullness in the stomach, sweating, and/or chills. These physical symptoms can last up to 1-2 hours, after which they are usually replaced with a sense of calm and acceptance. At this point, the more subjective, psychological effects begin to occur, reaching their peak 2-4 hours after ingestion and gradually declining over the next 8-12 hours. Peak effects are often said to be comparable to those of LSD, profoundly altering perceptions of self and reality, increasing suggestibility, and intensifying emotions. While some find peyote more sensual and less reality-shifting than LSD, others have trouble telling the difference.
Some users experience a deeply mystical or transcendental state, including clear and connected thought, feelings of oneness and unity, self-realization, and ego death, as well as empathy and euphoria. On the other hand, “bad trips” and dysphoric symptoms may be more common among people who don’t pay attention to set and setting and/or have histories of mental illness.
Visual effects are also common, including color enhancement, visual distortions (such as “melting” or “breathing” environments), geometric patterns, and the appearance of seemingly autonomous entities. A number of users, including Robert Anton Wilson in his autobiographical Cosmic Trigger, describe encounters with a little green man, or the “spirit of the plant,” who is often called “Mescalito.”
Although peyote has never (to our knowledge) directly caused physical harm or death to users, great care should be taken to minimize environmental hazards before taking it. It is very important, for example, to prepare the space appropriately by removing potential dangers (including sharp objects, things you might trip over, and so on) and setting up a safe and comfortable place to sit or lay throughout. Because purging is common, a bucket or nearby toilet, as well as fresh drinking water, is likely to come in handy. And it may also be a good idea to have a responsible sitter present—both for added security and in case of unforeseen emergencies.
Like most psychedelics, peyote should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women. While it may be traditional for Huichol women to consume it during pregnancy, mescaline has been linked to a specific group of fetal abnormalities.
Peyote should also be avoided by anyone with a heart condition and/or high blood pressure, particularly in combination with blood pressure medications. Other drugs to avoid combining with peyote include immunomodulators, alcohol, and stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines.
Combining peyote with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)—usually to amplify the effects—is likely to increase nausea and may even be dangerous. In fact, the nausea that tends to arise from taking peyote alone may have something to do with the presence of naturally occurring MAOIs like tyramine.
“There are two species of peyote”
Some Native American tribes identify two species of peyote, which the Huichol call Tzinouritehua-hikuri (Peyote of the God) and Rhaitoumuanitari-hikuri (Peyote of the Goddess) in reference to their differing size, potency, and palatability. Botanists, however, recognize only one species and attribute most of these superficial differences to other factors like age.
There is another species in the Lophophora genus, the Lophophora diffusa, which looks remarkably like peyote, but it contains only trace amounts of mescaline—and sometimes none whatsoever. Instead, this so-called “false peyote” contains high levels of the narcotic alkaloid pellotine.
Native American Church peyote ceremonies— which can last upwards of 10 hours overnight and typically involve drumming, chanting, and prolonged periods of sleeplessness, along with social and behavioral interventions—are often used to treat drug and alcohol addiction. And, tellingly, while alcoholism (or at least alcohol abuse) among the Navajo and other Native American tribes is often said to be more than twice the national US average, it tends to be especially low among members of the Native American Church. Whether peyote (or mescaline) therefore represents a promising therapy for alcohol addiction is up for debate, but these findings concur with anecdotal reports, as well as studies, into the therapeutic benefits of other psychedelics. Indeed, even William “Bill W” Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was in favor of psychedelic intervention.
Certainly the effects of peyote on the serotonin system are likely to aid in the treatment of substance addiction, but the set/setting and social support inherent in the traditional ceremony may have just as much if not more of a therapeutic effect. In addition to the sacrament of peyote, for instance, these ceremonies feature a master guide, marathon group sessions, ego reduction techniques, social networks, and a focus on self-actualization throughout.
As a traditional addiction therapy, the peyote ceremony can also induce visions of one’s eventual ruin as an addict and effectively simulate what alcoholics refer to as “rock bottom,” ultimately sparking off a very real sense of urgency to change. Furthermore, the intensely meditative trance state evoked by continuous drumming and chants can powerfully facilitate an increase in self-awareness, the breakdown of denial mechanisms, a reinterpretation of the self, and an overall sense of control in the addict.
Like many psychedelics, in addition to its direct effects on the serotonin system, peyote is also associated with a strong “afterglow” effect that can last for up to 6 weeks after a ceremony. During this period, users commonly report feeling happier, more empathic, less prone to cravings, and more open to communication—all of which is likely to boost the efficiency of follow-up therapy sessions. Of course, this has obvious implications for the treatment of depression as well, especially given that depression scores are reportedly lower among more active members of the Native American Church.
Naturally, the traditional aim of peyote ceremonies to restore balance between the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms  also holds promise for personal growth and development in general.
Personal blessings, healing, and insights are common, and many users emerge from the experience with an awareness of their place in the interconnected web of being. Purging (whether by vomiting or just flatulence) is another important aspect of the ceremony, and can be useful for dispensing with deeply rooted fears and other negative emotions. Some ceremony participants find they need to confront their own shadow, or their own hellish mind state, in order to move past it with “tears of letting go.”
But while the formal ceremony rubric (including prayer, group ritual, and trance states) has been developed and refined over many generations, it is by no means essential for attaining the profound and life-changing insights or transformations that it helps to bring about.
Solo, meditative experiences with peyote can equally give rise to insights into the nature of fear, the circle of life, immortality, better living, and so on. Visions full of sometimes prophetic meaning can just as easily come to the solo user as to the ceremony participant. What’s useful for all settings, though, is to approach peyote with respect. As one user put it, “if one does not respect the plant, the plant will certainly teach you to do so.”
Peyote ceremonies often involve prayers and spiritual practices for specific purposes, such as health and well-being, spiritual guidance for important decisions or journeys (such as for soldiers going off to war), or accepting the passing of a loved one. And many users find it helps to set up their intention in a similar way before consuming peyote, for instance by affirming their desire to learn.
Surprisingly, and rather promisingly for such a powerful psychedelic, the legality of peyote is often ambiguous. In the United States, despite it being a federally controlled Schedule I substance—even in its natural state—peyote is legal for members of the Native American Church under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. And even non-Indians may sometimes be permitted to use peyote if it’s for serious research purposes.
Peyote is also a Schedule I substance in Mexico, where harvesting the plant from the wild is controlled due to peyote’s endangered status. Again, however, religious use is permitted.
In Canada, although extracted mescaline is illegal, fresh (not dried) peyote and other mescaline-containing cacti are specifically exempt from scheduling. And the situation is much the same in the UK (even after the Psychoactive Substances Act) and elsewhere in Europe, where it tends to be legal to grow peyote but not to prepare it for use.
In Australia, the legality of peyote varies by state. For example, it is illegal in Western Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory, but legal to grow (as long as it’s not for use) in Victoria and New South Wales, among other states.
Can it be detected in a drug test?
Mescaline can be detected in the urine for 1 to 4 days after use, but it’s not included in either standard or extended drug screens. Virtually all labs require a specific test for the substance, so unless your employer is a real stickler and specifically worried that you’ve been frequenting peyote ceremonies, you should be fine.
Will it make me go crazy?
Are there risks?
As stated above, there don’t seem to have been any fatalities arising directly from peyote alone. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t risky. It should be avoided (or at least approached with extreme caution) if you have a personal or family history of mental illness, a heart condition, or high blood pressure, as well as by pregnant or breastfeeding women because of the risk of birth defects. For more information on taking peyote safely, see Precautions.
Is it legal to grow peyote cactus?
Peyote is legal to grow in many countries even where mescaline is illegal, but this doesn’t include the United States. Always check your local laws before cultivating peyote and be aware that, while it’s a relatively low-maintenance cactus to grow, it may take several years to establish a decent sized garden. On the other hand, peyote buttons are thought to retain mescaline for a very long time (potentially even thousands of years!), so they’re worth the wait.
Because peyote is an endangered species, conscientious cultivation could help to save it from extinction. Actually, wild peyote should never be picked from the wild unless it’s with the intention of growing more from the cuttings.
How do I take it?
Peyote buttons can be eaten whole or brewed as a tea. A moderate dose of 200-400 mg mescaline can be achieved by ingesting around 6 buttons.
Can I microdose with peyote?
Peyote can be microdosed by ingesting around half a button (20-40 mg mescaline) every four days or so. In fact, this may be one of its traditional uses; the Tarahumara Indians are said to consume small amounts of the cactus to combat hunger and fatigue while hunting. In general, though, and certainly to avoid nausea, it may be preferable to microdose pure mescaline (and, given the endangered status of peyote, San Pedro may be a preferable source). For more information, check out our Essential Guide to Microdosing Mescaline.
Will it produce tolerance?
Peyote generally produces a tolerance that lasts several days, and it also produces cross-tolerance to other psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin. It’s therefore recommended to wait several days between doses of any of these substances.
Can I mix it with other drugs?
Peyote should never be mixed with tramadol, as it can lead to serotonin syndrome. Also avoid mixing peyote with alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines or cocaine. Click here for a detailed chart of safe drug combinations.
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