Peyote Is Endangered, Spiritually Sacred and Becoming Legal


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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.

These days, peyote is in the news again, in part because the plant (along with magic mushrooms) was decriminalized in Oakland, California in June 2019, the second city in the U.S. to do so after Denver, Colorado. Advocates say the cacti's new 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 or those addicted to alcohol or other drugs. But before we look at its medicinal side, first let's find out what the plant is all about.

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 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.

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 Peyote

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.

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

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.