Peyote Is Endangered, Spiritually Sacred and Becoming Legal

By: Nathan Chandler  | 
The peyote plant, which produces the hallucinogenic mescaline, has been overharvested in the U.S. and Mexico. Sinisa Kukic/Getty Images

The peyote plant, which produces the hallucinogenic mescaline, has been overharvested in the U.S. and Mexico. SINISA KUKIC/GETTY IMAGES

For centuries, Mexican Indians and Native Americans in the Southwest have used peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, for certain religious ceremonies and rituals. And during the psychedelics-infused days of the '60s, peyote found a new audience, among counterculture hippies seeking a back-to-nature lifestyle.


Well, peyote is in the news again, in part because the plant (along with magic mushrooms) was peyote/1347888001/">decriminalized in Oakland, California, the second city in the U.S. to do so after Denver, Colorado.

Advocates say the cacti's decriminalized status will free up law enforcement to pursue more serious matters and potentially allow for more research into peyote's mind-altering effects, which may help people with mental and emotional distress, those addicted to alcohol, or those that struggle with drug abuse.


What Is Peyote?

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small cactus that grows underground — only its top ( or "button," which is about the size of a baseball) is visible. Peyote is a spineless, slow-growing plant, one that may take years to reach maturity in the deserts of south Texas and northern Mexico.

As they grow, the cacti produce range of phenethylamine alkaloids, some of which have a distinctive hallucinogenic effect on humans. Once harvested, the little button-shaped fruits can be eaten, brewed into a psychoactive tea, or dried and crushed into a powder, which is loaded into capsules or smoked.


The primary active ingredient is the hallucinogen mescaline, a powerful drug that the U.S. categorizes as a Schedule I substance, making it (mostly) illegal to possess or consume. (Interestingly, the mescaline causes a severe reaction in animals, which deters them from eating it, providing welcome protection for the spineless cactus.)

Native American tribes in parts of North and Central America revere the plant as a way to accentuate their spiritual ceremonies. Native Americans may gather around a fire and share peyote, as a shaman or ceremonial leader chants and sings, guiding participants through the experience, which may last 10 hours or longer.

In Mexico, the Huichol or Wixáritari people set out on peyote pilgrimages through the desert several times each year, stopping along the way to take more peyote, which they believe opens channels to their gods.

Beyond religious ceremonies, peyote has a long history as a sacred medicine in these cultures. People sometimes use the cacti to help with fever, skin problems, blindness, colds, diabetes and pain.


Is The Native American Church Exempt?

The U.S. government does not recognize any of the medicinal claims made regarding peyote or synthetic mescaline. Anti-drug laws mean that it is, by and large, illegal to possess or consume peyote, so if you're caught with this cacti in the U.S. you may face fines or imprisonment. However, the federal government does create exceptions for the Native American Church, allowing its members to use these psychoactive plants for religious purposes.

Peyote ingestion was prohibited in 1970 when the Controlled Substance Act was passed by Congress, although the Native American Church was exempt from this law. In 1976, Alan Birnbaum, founder of his own Native American Church of New York, challenged the status quo by insisting that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) "exempt the use of all hallucinogenic drugs in religious ceremonies of all churches that believe that psychedelic drugs are deities." When the DEA refused, he sued. The Supreme Court sided with him.


Laws regarding peyote vary in other nations. For example, peyote use is legal in Canada but only if you're using the plant for religious reasons, not for recreational purposes. And the United Kingdom, it's legal to grow peyote, but not to prepare it for consumption. In Mexico it's illegal to consume peyote or harvest the wild variety because it's endangered. However, there's an exception for religious purposes.

Psychedelic Effects of Peyote

Peyote works by interacting with the neurotransmitter serotonin in your brain to alter your thinking and perception. Because potency varies from plant to plant, it's difficult to dose the drug with any real accuracy, but between 10 and 20 grams of dried peyote (three to six buttons) is an average dose.

Those who eat peyote cacti or drink its tea report a bitter taste, one so overwhelming that many people become nauseous and wind up vomiting, sometimes violently. As the drug takes hold, people may see brighter colors or hear louder sounds or lose track of time or place. They could experience euphoria, detachment, illusions or visual distortions. As to whether they have a "good trip" or a "bad trip" can depend on the expectations of the users and the setting (is it taking place in a church, nightclub or doctor's office?). If the trip goes badly, mood swings, paranoia or panic may occur. Other side effects may include dry mouth, headaches, increased heart rate and impaired motor skills.


Beyond those effects, peyote isn't really regarded as a physically addictive drug. Like magic mushrooms, users take the drug only occasionally, often as part of a spiritual quest. But as with all mind-altering substances, some mental health experts express concerns that peyote may produce psychological dependency in some users.

Although most native cultures frown on recreational use, many curious people purposely seek peyote, sometimes simply seeking a unique drug experience, or perhaps as part of what they see as a personal spiritual journey.


Finding A Peyote Cactus

It isn't easy access to peyote. Sure, you could traipse across the blistering desert landscape in search of the few remaining plants in south Texas. Or, you could take part in a "spirit walk" orchestrated by the Peyote Way Church of God, which is located in a remote part of the Arizona desert. After a $400 donation, church leaders will prepare you for your experience, which begins with a 24-hour fast and culminates with your drinking peyote tea.

tourist eats peyote
A tourist eats peyote at the desert near the town of Real de 14, in San Luis Potosi State, Mexico on July 17, 2013.

You may have better success going to Mexico. The Mexican town of Real de Catorce, which is a homeland to many Huichol people, each year sees visitors from all over the world. Many arrive simply to find and experience peyote, which grows in the scrubland around the region. Tourists hire guides to ferry them into the desert, where they search, sometimes for hours, in hopes of finding peyote buttons, which they may well consume right on the spot.


The tourists may have an amazing psychedelic experience, but the locals say that overharvesting from tourists is threatening the peyote supply, and as a result is also imperiling Huichol religious traditions, which rely so heavily on the sacred plant. Once the plant's been harvested, it may take a decade or more for it to regenerate and produce fruit.

Given peyote's relative scarcity compared to other psychedelics, as well as its illegal status, it's likely to remain mostly a tool for religious sacraments and spiritual exploration, a bitter-tasting but possibly euphoric path to a higher power of sorts.

In Texas, only a handful of peyote harvesters, called peyoteros, can legally harvest the cacti and then sell them to the Native American Church that dominates much of the Southwest. The peyoteros lease land in the tiny, 1,250-square mile (3,484 square kilometer) patch of Texas where the cacti is found, hoping to find enough of the prized plant to make a living.


Frequently Answered Questions

Is peyote a narcotic?
Peyote is not a narcotic.