Ancestral Medicines: Peyote
Peyote also known as mescaline, mescalito, buttons, or it’s scientific name Lophophora williamsii is a small, spineless cactus that is found in the southwest United States, northern Mexico, and Peru.
Native Americans have known of the plant’s hallucinatory properties for thousands of years, and peyote still holds a sacred place in these cultures for religious and healing purposes. In fact, over 40 tribes in North America and Western Canada still use it in sacred religious ceremonies.
Peyote buttons (protrusions found on the tops of the cactus plants) are usually dried and then chewed. They can also be soaked and consumed as a liquid (such as tea), ground into a powder that can be taken in capsules, or sprinkled into a cigarette or marijuana joint to be smoked.
Peyote's principal active ingredient is mescaline, a psychedelic compound that can also be man-made through chemical synthesis. Even though it has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years in religious ceremonies and to treat physical ailments, peyote is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled drug and its use is illegal in the U.S. However, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act has ensured that native people can exercise their traditional religious ceremonies, including those that incorporate peyote use.
Peyote has long held deep spiritual significance amongst Native Americans, particularly the Huicholes (Wixárika) of Mexico who believe it grants them healing skills and the ability to communicate with their gods. For that reason, it long preceded LSD and psilocybin as a mainstream hallucinogen, with remnants of peyote being found in ruins dating back almost 6000 years.
To those who view peyote as sacred, the experience with this plant is a sort of communion or religious sacrament. The ritual varies from tribe to tribe and may include other practices, such as meditation, chanting, or various cleansing ceremonies.
When assisted by a healer or "roadman" (similar to a priest or minister), members use peyote to facilitate communication with the Great Spirit (also called the Creator).
Even the process of acquiring the peyote, called “the hunt,” is a part of the ritual. In the past, some Native Americans would travel up to 200 miles on foot to attain the peyote.
Peyote may also have some health benefits, but research is still in its early stages. While people also use peyote to cause hallucinations, others believe it is helpful for conditions such as fevers, wounds, and joint pain. It's also thought by some to be effective in aiding with toothache, childbirth and fever but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.
Peyote and other hallucinogens are also being studied as possible treatments for mental health conditions that are associated with perceptual distortions, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and dementia. Peyote and mescaline both carry risks, and some people may experience side effects after ingesting the plant.
What Does Peyote Do?
Peyote is a hallucinogen, meaning it can cause profound distortions in a person's perceptions of reality (known as hallucinations), including seeing, hearing, and feeling things that seem real but are not. Taking whole peyote or the active alkaloid mescaline produces the psychedelic effects associated with the plant.
Mescaline interacts with the 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, which pertain to how the body uses serotonin. These receptors are also the targets of other classic hallucinogens, such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. They are likely responsible for the “trip” a person experiences when using these substances.
Users can begin to experience the drug's effects (as well as physical discomfort, including nausea, sweating, and chills) within 30 minutes of ingesting peyote. The effects can last up to two hours before reaching a peak, and gradually decline over the next eight to 12 hours.
The effects of peyote (anywhere from a deeply mystical transcendental state to a “bad trip” and dysphoric symptoms) will depend on the potency and amount that is ingested, as well as the user’s mood, surroundings, expectations, and mental health history. Many users describe the high as dream-like. A psychedelic or hallucinogenic trip is highly likely.
The effects will be different for everyone, though most people do experience vivid hallucinations. These hallucinations are experiences that are not happening in the “real” world, but they will feel very real to the person experiencing them. Hallucinations may be either overwhelmingly joyful or terrifying. They may seem highly significant to the person, but they may also feel very chaotic.
The hallucinogenic effects of mescaline also appear to enhance the senses. Colors, sounds, and even experiences may feel richer or bolder. Time may become distorted to some people. For others, the field of vision and objects within may shift or change. These hallucinations may affect multiple senses, and many people describe the trips as involving a mixing of the senses. For example, people may claim to be able to “see sounds” or “feel colors.”
Like other hallucinogens, mescaline may cause some people to have a “bad trip”. These may involve negative feelings, experiences, and emotions. The person may feel terrified, be haunted by negative hallucinations, or continuously relive negative moments. Also, because of the feeling of time distortion, the person may have severe anxiety or feel trapped within these experiences.
Both good and bad experiences are temporary, and the effects will fade as the body processes the mescaline out of the system.