Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is unassuming at first glance. It’s small and spineless, unlike other cacti. But inside the small buttons that grow from the plant lies is a hallucinogen called mescaline. This component makes peyote the center of some religious rituals and also some legal disputes.
Peyote is normally prepared by cutting the buttons from the plant. They can be dried and then eaten. The buttons can also be soaked in water to make a psychoactive tea. Some modern spiritual practitioners consume it in this way.
In addition, the buttons can be ground into a fine powder and then smoked with tobacco or marijuana. This powder is sometimes put in capsules to avoid the bitter taste. And mescaline can be drawn out and made into pills or liquid. A synthetic form of mescaline can also be created.
The psychological effects of peyote include vivid hallucinations. Users often claim they can “see music” or “hear colors.” They may have visions and altered views of space and time. Colors may appear brighter, sounds more distinct, and vision enhanced.
Users may also feel profound joy or extreme terror, and have dramatic emotional experiences. As with LSD, some people may have a negative experience with peyote, or a “bad trip.”
Physical effects of peyote often include numbness and tension. It can also cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Users may experience:
- elevated body temperature
- sweating or shivering
Among indigenous populations, peyote is believed to have medical properties. It’s been said to aid in the treatment of everything from toothaches to diabetes. But there is little scientific research on these purported benefits.
The long-term effects of peyote are also poorly understood. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is no link between long-term peyote use and psychological or intellectual disabilities. However, frequent users may experience flashbacks.
Peyote isn’t thought to be addictive. Scientists at the Center for Substance and Research Abuse haven’t found evidence of psychological or physical addiction. However, users can build a tolerance with frequent peyote use. When this happens, over time they need increasingly more of the mescaline to have the same effects.
Just how many people use peyote as a recreational drug is unknown. In surveys of drug use, it’s normally excluded. According to one survey reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6 percent of high school seniors reported using LSD or other hallucinogens, which would include peyote.
Under U.S. federal law, recreational use of peyote is illegal. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it has no real medical uses and the highest risk of abuse. Ceremonial or religious use is permitted under certain conditions. Members of the Native American Church, a recognized religious institution, are an exception to the ban. Tribal members can use ceremonial peyote without fear of federal penalties.
States may have their own specific peyote laws. But they’re required to adhere to the federal regulations, limiting the use of peyote to legitimate religious use.
Religious use of peyote is still common among certain indigenous groups. The Native American Church, the Huichol Indians of Mexico, and other Native Americans consider the plant and its effects sacred. For centuries people have taken peyote to encourage visions and spiritual experiences.
While peyote may not have current proven medical uses, the history and culture surrounding its use is fascinating and continues to be studied.