What is Peyote?
Lophophora williamsii also known as peyote is a small, flowering, spineless cactus that is native to North America. It grows as far north as Southern Texas in the United States, where it is found specifically, in portions of the Rio Grande Valley, and as far south as San Luis Potosi in Mexico. In Mexico, it grows in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas in the north to San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. The name “peyote” comes from the Nahuatl word “peyotl”. More names for peyote include peyotl, hikuri, mescal buttons, mescalito, and lophophora williamsii.
Peyote is a small (less than 12 cm in diameter), round mint-green colored cactus with fuzzy tufts instead of spines.When peyote is uprooted it resembles that of a carrot. When in its natural state, only the button-shaped top portion sticks up out of the ground, rarely rising more than 3 cm above the soil surface.
The cactus contains several psychoactive alkaloids, the primary being mescaline, and upwards of 50 alkaloids that are derived from the amino acids tyrosine, phenylalanine. Most of the alkaloids are b-phenylethylamines, but a minor fraction is of the isoquinoline-structure. Many of the b-phenylethylamines are physiologically active, but mescaline is mainly responsible for the psychedelic effects. Fresh peyote contains 0.4 % mescaline per weight, dried buttons 2.74-3.7%.1
The Modern History of Peyote
Peyote has psychoactive properties and a long history of spiritual and medicinal use among various Native American tribes. While little is known about peyote use prior to the arrival of the Europeans during the 16th century. A 2005 study found traces of peyote within Native American ruins. The samples that were found date back around 5700 years. As far as scientific research goes this is the earliest known use of the peyote cactus.
Prehistoric trade in and knowledge of peyote was apparently well established prior to the European conquest of Mexico. At that time, Spanish Inquisitors declared its use to be a punishable crime against God and native peyotists became targets of oftentimes ruthless evangelism. However, despite centuries of persecution, the continued existence of peyote religion is a testament to its importance in the spiritual lives of many.
Among indigenous people, peyote is considered to be a sacred medicine and has been used to treat a variety of ailments such as toothache, pain in childbirth, fever, breast pain, skin diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, colds, and blindness. The US Dispensatory lists peyote under the name Anhalonium, and states it can be used in various preparations for neurasthenia, hysteria and asthma.
The ceremonial use of peyote was outlawed by the United States government starting in the 1880’s going through the 1930’s.The use of peyote as a “medicine” became illegal because it contains a psychoactive alkaloid, 3,4,5 Trimethoxyphenethylamine – also known as mescaline. Peyote is listed by the United States DEA as a Schedule I controlled substance.2
On August 11th 1978 President Carter signed into law the “American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” Introduced as, Senate Joint Resolution 102 and Public Law 95-341, the act was created to guarantee Native Americans, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians the rights to believe, express and practice their native traditional religions which included the ceremonial use of peyote. In 1994, President Clinton signed the amendment to AIRFA or the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994. Signing this amendment effectively legalized access to sacred sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites. This amendment legalized “the use and possession of sacred objects.” Which includes the ceremonial use of the peyote cactus for religious ceremonies.
The history of peyote suppression and persecution is much older than this and was originally condemned by the first Spanish invaders for its so called, “satanic trickery.” Peyote, was one of the first hallucinogenic plants discovered by the Spaniards. It is likely that peyote was the most terrifying intoxicating plants they encountered. This led them to banning the plant for spiritual use. Since peyote has always been firmly rooted in native religions. Their efforts to eradicate the ceremonial use of peyote drove it into hiding in the hills of Northern Mexico where it has remained a sacred practice even still today.
It has been noted that “recreational” use by backpackers has caused some undesirable effects such as a sensation of losing one’s mind or going insane. This seems to be somewhat typical for abusers of psychoactive plants. If you are taking this sacred plant just to “trip balls” you might get a rude awakening. That could be a good thing but in some cases it can lead to temporary or even sustained psychosis. If you insist on using peyote as a medicine we recommend seeking out bona-fide medicine people or licensed psychotherapist as this plant should be treated with the highest respect to avoid any undesirable effects that can and do occur.3
Art from Nierika
Peyote in Huichol Culture
The Native peoples in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and in parts of Queretaro and Durango are known as the Huichol or Wixarika. The Cora and Tarahumara populate these areas as well and they too ceremoniously consume peyotl in a similar manner as the Huichol only without the pilgrimage. Today, the Huichol people make a pilgrimage every year along a sacred route from the Huichol mountains to Wirikuta to ask God for a good rainy season, fertility and good health for their people, animals and plants. When they reach the Wirikuta mountains they perform a ritual bath along with prayers and dancing before going out to hunt peyote. When they find the peyote they consume it overnight while performing religious ceremonies and dances. Then they prepare some to bring home for the rest of the people. Any extra peyote was usually sold or traded to the Cora and Tarahumara.
Peyote & the Native American Church
The Kiowa, Apache and Comanche Indians were the first north American tribes to come across peyote during their visits to northern Mexico. North American tribes were losing their cultural heritage until they came across peyote. Then the Comanche, Kiowa and Apache were put onto Indian territory in Oklahoma this is where the Native American church really took off. In 1918 the NAC became a bona-fide church James Mooney who was an anthropologist and working for the federal government was one of first who attended peyote meetings he understood the sacredness of these ceremonies and rallied with the roadmen until the NAC received federal recognition. Indian leaders from the Oklahoma area began to spread a North American version of the peyote ceremonies. To this day the Kiowa, Apache and Comanche peyote ceremony has remained mostly unchanged. This is the same ceremony that the Plains tribes adopted. In order to preserve their cultural heritage North American tribes organised Peyotism into a legally recognized religious group known as the NAC or Native American Church. The North American peyote ceremonies are much different than their Mexican counterparts. The North American version is more of a meeting without the dancing of the Huichol.4
Peyote Preservation & Sustainability
Due to improper and over harvesting, peyote is currently on the endangered species list. peyote grows very slowly in nature taking anywhere from 3-5 years to mature. When harvested correctly it will grow new buttons slowly but surely. Improper harvesting however, kills the root structure which does not allow the cactus to grow new buttons. Many people around the world are now cultivating peyote in an effort to keep this plant around for future generations. A good rule of thumb for using such sacred plants is, for every one plant that is consumed three should be planted in its place. Since peyote is naturally limited to such a small region it is troubling to know the rate at which it is being depleted. Peyote provides a number of spiritual and cultural values so it must be used in a sustainable manner if at all.
Even though peyote was outlawed, a few Native American tribes continued the ceremonial use of the cactus in secret. The Tarahumara, Cora and Huichol tribes are credited for carrying on the traditional use of peyote to present day. This of course allowed the ceremonial use to spread up to the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache tribes which later gave birth to the Native American Churches.
However, while improper harvesting impacts peyote regeneration, the greatest threats to peyote sustainability and Huichol culture are mining and drug cartels. While Wirikuta, the sacred site of pilgrimage for the Huicholes, is is protected as a UNESCO Natural Sacred Area, foreign mining companies are determined to exploit vast concessions in the region. Real de Catorce, in Mexico’s northern state of San Luis Potosi, has been a center for the extraction of silver since the late 18th century. Silver mining has long provided wealth and employment for the region’s inhabitants, and many local Mexicans favor mining, as it provides jobs close to home. 11
While the conflict between peyote and silver is a long-standing one, a more insidious development encroaches upon the sacred peyote fields. One of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, the Jalisco cartel has invaded Wixárika territories in northern Jalisco and the surrounding states in the last year, displacing local residents or forcing them to grow opium.12 The Huichol community have been fighting back against land incursions, but in May, 2017, Miguel Vázquez, a prominent land rights activist, and his brother were killed. Collusion between local police and organized crime make it hard, if not impossible for the Huicholes to seek justice.
Currently the Mexican government and the indigenous communities that use peyote in sacred ritualistic ceremonies are warning that peyote is in danger of becoming extinct. This is absolutely horrifying to think that after thousands of years of peaceful co-existence with the indigenous groups of Mexico this sacred plant is now in danger of extinction. All because tourist and people that are not part of this ancient story are over consuming this plant with little to no regard for these sacred communities of indigenous healers whose entire culture depends on the existence of this sacred plant.5
Peyote & Cultural Appropriation
The first drug to ever be outlawed in the Americas was peyote in 1620 by the Spanish Inquisition. Interestingly enough it was not outlawed because indigenous people were attracted to its power. Since the Spanish had no control over indigenous people they focused on keeping control over the Europeans and mixed races that were drawn to peyote.
So began peyote’s drawn-out association with race. This racial association with the cactus continues to this day. Colonial Mexico was governed as a racial hierarchy, laws were made in regards to the clothing people wore, behavior and absurdly enough about what people could legally consume. These laws were specifically targeted along racial lines. These laws kept colonial society together it’s difficult to believe that four hundred years later we are making similar mistakes regarding legislation around the contemporary use of peyote.6
Healing with Peyote
Dr. Richard Evans Schultes wrote a book about the medicinal properties of Peyote. The book is titled The Appeal Of Peyote. In this book he describes the medicinal properties of the plant and includes an impressive list of the ailments that the cactus is used to effectively treat. The list of ailments effectively treated with Peyote include, arthritis, congestion, headaches, knee pain, fatigue and it is used as a tonic for good health. Western science discovered its analgesic properties. The Huichol use it in micro doses to dissuade thirst and hunger. Dr Stacey Shaefer herself attests to the antibiotic properties of Peyote through her bio essays and stories of personal healing with Peyote. She also mentions peyote’s ability to increase growth hormones GH and it has also been shown in research studies to increase the immune response to cancerous tumors. “These are all good reasons why it is called medicine” Dr Stacey Shaefer said. Those are indeed good reasons why peyote is called medicine.9
Dr John Halpern also researched Peyote and discovered that it is a powerful treatment for drug addiction and alcoholism. It is also well documented to treat depression and anxiety. Given all of these wonderful medicinal properties I’m left wondering what the real reason is that this miracle cactus has been outlawed by the federal government. I had so much trouble finding current research on Peyote for writing this article. This needs to change and we all have a role to play. To get involved in this discussion join your local psychedelic group. You can find a list of active groups on our resources page.
The Huichol lifestyle consists mainly of spiritual practices such as ritualistic ceremonies for each season. The ceremonies are the Huicholes way of bringing balance and harmony for all of life that makes up the community including all people, plants, animals and minerals. The ceremonies are a sacred time that brings the people together to honor the spirit world. The unseen universe which runs parallel with our earthly world.
Huichol shamans work to interconnect these two worlds in order to bring life force called “kupuri” into the bodies and souls of the community. They believe that through these ceremonial practices they impart good health as well as good luck for all.
One of the principal ceremonies of the Huichol people is the “dance of the dear.” During these ceremonies the people dance their prayers into the heart of Mother Earth. This is also a way they connect with the Deer Spirit, undoubtedly the supreme power animal of the Huichol people.
Deer is seen as an elder brother or ancestral guide which the shamans use for healing and navigating within the spirit world. The Huicholes believe that gods and goddesses taught the deer in ancient times. He is the progenitor of shamanism, the first to learn the secrets of the original shaman, Grandfather Fire. Because of this, deer is revered over all others and is now an integral part of the Huichol religious ceremonies.
Peyote Dosage & Effects
In small amounts the effects of Peyote are mild. You can expect a bit of fatigue followed by a surge of physical energy that is accompanied by a sense of well being. With larger doses the effects are much more intense and full blown visionary states can be accessed. Some people may experience stomach cramps and or nausea during the first couple of hours and others that are not as sensitive do not experience any nausea at all. Psychological effects tend to last upwards of 10 hours once they begin.
The table found below describes the difference between fresh and dried dosages and how the effects differ at each dosage level. This information is solely for harm reduction purposes.
Fresh Peyote Dosage
Light Dose 3 – 6 mid-sized buttons 50 – 100 g
Typical Dose 6 – 12 buttons 100 – 150 g
Strong Dose 8 – 16 buttons 150 – 200 g
Heavy Dose 15 + buttons 200 + g
Dried Peyote Dosage
Light Dose 3 – 6 mid-sized buttons 10 – 20 g
Typical Dose 6 – 12 buttons 20 – 30 g
Strong Dose 8 – 16 buttons 30 – 40 g
Heavy Dose 15 + buttons 40 + g
Mescaline, the main psychoactive alkaloid in peyote produces a wide range of psychological and physical effects including but not limited to the following; hunger and thirst suppression, hallucinations, profound altering of reality and self awareness. Increased suggestibility and heightened senses. One may become highly emotional and may experience hysterical laughter and or uncontrollable crying. In the right set and setting, mystical type experiences can be achieved and other worldly entities may be contacted. Physical side effects include bodily distress and discomfort, nausea, sweating and purging may occur. Physical symptoms typically persist for the first or second hour, after the initial discomfort is over a sense of calm, acceptance and oneness with all will commence. The psychological effects of peyote usually begin to occur after the first or second hour once the physical effects begin to subside. The effects of peyote have been compared to the effects of LSD and Psilocybin also known as Magic Mushrooms. If you’ve ever taken LSD or Psilocybin you already know what to expect.7
Appropriate Set & Setting for a Personal Peyote Ritual
Let’s consider set and setting and how this will make a world of difference for you and your plant medicine journey. First, you should understand that the, “set” refers to your mind set. Your mindset should be pure and good so think of the reasons why you are taking this medicine in the first place. The, “setting” refers to the place or location where your plant medicine journey will take place. Taking peyote to, “trip balls” is definitely the wrong mindset. This could lead to a bad trip and can also contribute to short term and or sustained psychosis. The right set would be, taking the medicine to heal your body, mind or spirit from addiction or illness. To ask the plant teacher for guidance in figuring out what your life’s purpose is or why you are here. This may sound silly for some of you but indigenous cultures refer to certain plants as master teachers.
Thanks to Dr John Halpern a psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School and his study which was funded by The National Institute Of Drug Abuse. There is an increasing body of evidence indicating that peyote has real therapeutic benefits in the treatment of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. Peyote has also been used to successfully treat alcoholism and drug addiction as well as gastrointestinal issues.
These are all good examples of having the right mindset. As for the setting I would definitely recommend going away from the city to avoid nosey neighbors and or any unwanted distractions or interruptions. Renting a cabin at the mountains or a little house in the desert is an ideal setting. Surrounding yourself with nature is the best way to go about healing yourself with peyote and other plant medicines as well. I like to bring my crystals, drums, shakers and lots of wood for burning a bonfire outdoors. I usually start plant ceremonies by clearing the space with Copal or Sage incense. I go around the house and say in a confident voice, “into this smoke I release all energies that do not serve me, all negativity that surrounds me and all fears that limit me. So it is.” I have any participants repeat, “So it is.” I also change “me” to “us” I do this three times in every room of the house. I also do this for each participant, myself and my dog. If you are burning a bonfire outside that will clear your outdoor space. Fire is a sacred element that I find to be a great ally when working with plant medicines. Be warned that fire is a trickster and he will try to trick you into touching him. I usually just laugh at his attempts and say, you can’t trick me but thank you, thank you for keeping me warm and lighting the night for me, I love you. It is a good idea to cultivate a relationship with each of the elements. Dress comfortably because mescaline is an all day event lasting anywhere between 8-12 hours and even longer depending on dosage. If you are inexperienced with this medicine it is not recommended that you tend to a fire during your journey. This can become a safety hazard for the inexperienced practitioner and would be best to avoid all together at first.
It is a good idea for beginners to bring sitters along that will remain sober while you are on the plant medicine journey. They can tend to the fire and be present for you if you experience any difficulties. It is also a good idea to clean your environment and shower before getting started. I would also recommend that you meditate before and after your journey in order to prepare and integrate what you have just experienced. Personally, I work with all five elements when going on a plant or fungal journey. In my space I have live fish to represent the element of water. Outside I will hang wind chimes to invite the element of wind to make music with me. Crystals or even a dog or cat represent the element of earth and they also make great trip sitters. I haven’t worked with cats but I know from experience that my dog always knows when I or one of my participants is having a difficult experience. He will walk right up to me or one of my participants and either kiss them or nudge them with his head. This usually redirects a difficult experience into a happy and positive experience. If you can’t have a bonfire for whatever reason you can always invite the element of fire with a candle please use caution when working with fire. Lastly, the element of spirit will be present with all of the others and your good intentions. For your journey you can create your own elemental invocations or you can research some online. If this seems very complicated to you it is probably a good idea to seek out an experienced practitioner or better yet, go to a Native American Church to experience an authentic peyote ceremony.8
Who Should Not Consume Peyote
The relationship between the Huichol people and the peyote cactus is sacred. It is an ancient story of cultural heritage that belongs to these people. We hope that this is enough for an outsider to understand why peyote use should remain exclusive for these and other native American tribes. After thousands of years they are well versed in the safe use of this sacred cactus. One should not try to use these plants without the acceptance or guidance of a real shaman or medicine person.
Huichol woman have been taking peyote throughout their entire pregnancy for thousands of years. Even though we find this information fascinating we do not encourage pregnant woman to take Peyote during their pregnancy.
Taking peyote may be a health risk for people with high blood pressure and should be avoided. Do not take peyote with alcohol or any other drugs that may cause contraindications such as, blood pressure regulators and immunomodulators.
We would recommend that you take San Pedro instead due to the endangered status of peyote. San Pedro is readily available and it grows vigorously in the wild or cultivated. If you do decide to go with San Pedro, honor the cacti by planting the remaining cuttings in your garden. San Pedro and peyote both contain Mescaline but their effects differ slightly. The effects of San Pedro have been compared to what many refer to as “candyflipping” or “hippy flipping” which is just a term to describe the mixing of LSD with MDMA “candyflip” or Psilocybin with MDMA “hippie flip.”
If you absolutely have to take peyote please find a sustainable source or grow your own. If you do take peyote from the wild at the very least plant three cacti for every one that you consume.
Please use common sense when working with such medicines and seek out bona-fide medicine people or shamanic practitioners in an authentic and sustainable setting such as a Native American Church. It looks like soon, licensed psychotherapists will be able to begin treating patients with mescaline and other psychedelics as well. Science is definitely on board with plant medicines and the science affirms what indigenous cultures have known since before recorded history. They will provide a similar setting that will include a comfortable environment, meditation and an integrative psychotherapy session which is loosely based on indigenous traditions.
There are several Native American Churches throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada that offer peyote healing retreats that fall within the legal guidelines of the U.S., Mexican and Canadian governments. A simple Web search should yield sufficient results.
1. Chemistry of Peyote
2. Lower Pecos and Coahuila peyote: new radiocarbon dates
3. Powerful Hallucinogenic Cactus
4. A Brief History of Peyote
5. Mexico’s Peyote Endangered by ‘Drug Tourists’
6. Racist Thinking Still Shapes How We Understand Peyote Drinking
7 Peyote Dose
8 Hallucinogenic Cactus Found Benign In Study
9 Stacy Schaefer: Peyote – Plant Medicine for the Body, Mind, and Soul
10 Diana Negrin: Peyote Dreams, From Collective Ritual to Personal Treatment?
11 Battle in the Mexican desert: silver mining against peyote and indigenous spirituality
12 An Indigenous Mexican People are Battling Cartels and Peyote Tourism