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 as a tea, or dried and crushed into a powder, which is loaded into capsules. Users may also smoke the dried version. The primary active ingredient is 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 protection for a cactus with no spines.)
Indigenous people 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 medicine in these cultures. People sometimes use the cacti to help with fever, skin problems, blindness, colds, diabetes and pain. The U.S. government does not recognize any of the medicinal claims made regarding peyote.
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 the plant 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 psychedelic 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, it's 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.