The peyote cactus, and its primary hallucinogenic substance mescaline, have historically been used during certain Native American religious ceremonies. Recreational use and abuse of peyote does occur both within and outside of the Native American community. Though not associated with significant physical dependence or other health complications, the powerful psychoactive effects can result in some dangers to the user. Additionally, the consistent use of hallucinogens like mescaline may be part of a larger pattern of problematic substance use, potentially involving more risky substances. Understanding the effects of the drug and risks involved in its use are the first step toward getting help.
What Is Peyote?
Peyote is a small, spineless cactus that grows in the desert of Mexico south of the Texas border.1 It contains the alkaloid mescaline, which is the principal hallucinogenic chemical responsible for the plant’s mind-altering effects.
Common street names for peyote include:2
Both the peyote plant and mescaline are classified as Schedule I substances, meaning they have a high potential for abuse and are not prescribed for any acceptable medical use.2 There is an exception, however, for peyote use by members of the Native American Church (NAC) in religious ceremonies.3The alkaloid mescaline is the principal hallucinogenic chemical responsible for the plant’s mind-altering effects.
How Is It Used?
In plant form, peyote has a small crown that grows above the ground and a carrot-shaped root growing below. The crown consists of bitter-tasting, disc-shaped buttons that are removed for hallucinogenic use. The buttons can be eaten raw or dried and ground into a powder that is then mixed with water or brewed as tea.1 The powder can also be placed inside gelatin capsules or sprinkled on top of tobacco or marijuana and smoked.2
Peyote is most commonly used for sacramental purposes in religious ceremonies held by members of the NAC. During these ceremonies, peyote is passed around freely in dried buttons or as tea.1 No one is pressured to participate, but usage is common and acceptable for anyone. Drops of peyote tea may be placed on the lips as a blessing, and adults will take a few teaspoons; however, there does not appear to be an official measurement or dosage used.1
Illicit use of peyote for recreational purposes also occurs; however it is not as widely used as other hallucinogens like LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. This could be due to the restricted availability of peyote in addition to the fact that its bitter taste frequently induces vomiting in users.
Outside of spiritual ceremonies, Native Americans also historically used peyote for medicinal purposes to treat burns, wounds, fever, toothache, and other ailments.4
What Are the Effects?
The chemical structure of mescaline is similar to that of dopamine and norepinephrine—neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with mood, pleasure, and reward.5
The effects of mescaline and peyote vary widely from person to person, but they typically produce sensory, cognitive, and emotional experiences that may elicit a spiritual sensation. On average, the peak high for peyote occurs within 2 to 4 hours after ingesting the plant, and the effects taper over the following 4 to 6 hours.1
Hallucinogenic effects can include:5
- Heightened sensory experiences (e.g., brighter colors, sharper hearing, or visual clarity).
- Mixed senses (e.g., “seeing music” or “hearing colors”).
- Vivid mental images.
- Dissociation, or loss of sense with reality.
- Altered perception of time and space.
- Feelings of detachment from self and greater environment.
- Extreme moods or emotions, such as overwhelming joy and exhilaration, or panic and terror.
Physical side effects of peyote usage may include:5
- Dilated pupils.
- Chills and shivering.
- Fever and sweating.
- Muscle twitching or weakness.
- Impaired coordination.
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate.
- Nausea and vomiting.
Hallucinogen Use in the U.S
The rate of peyote use in the United States is difficult to pin down, as many studies lump it together with other hallucinogens. One study estimates that around 32 million Americans have used LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, or mescaline at some point in their lifetimes.6
That same study found that men are more likely to use hallucinogens than women.6 Interestingly, adolescents and young adults are more likely to use psilocybin mushrooms, while older adults are more likely to use peyote and LSD.6
A 2016 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 1.4 million Americans over the age of 12 had used a hallucinogen in the past year.7 The SAMHSA study, however, expanded the category of hallucinogens to include LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA (ecstasy or Molly), ketamine, DMT/AMT/“Foxy,” and salvia.
Compared to other drugs, such as opioids, marijuana, or alcohol, hallucinogen use is relatively low. SAMHSA found that 11.8 million Americans currently misuse an opioid prescription or use an illicit opioid like heroin.7 Meanwhile, 24 million people currently use marijuana, and nearly 137 million are current alcohol users.7
In 2016, annual prevalence of hallucinogen usage for adolescents in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade hovered at 1.8%.8 This is in contrast with 36.7% for alcohol, 22.6% for marijuana, and 5.4% for amphetamines.
Among 8th grade students, 37% said they considered regular LSD use as harmful.8 This could be a factor in the general decline in LSD usage over the past few decades, coupled with an increase in usage of other drugs, especially psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA.8
Native American Ceremonies
The use of peyote for medicinal and religious purposes dates back many centuries among tribes throughout the United States and Mexico. Today, use of peyote for religious purposes occurs across different tribes of varying spiritual beliefs. These disparate groups who practice peyote ceremonies are incorporated under the official name Native American Church (NAC).
Currently, there are approximately 300,000 members of the NAC, making it the largest organized Native American religious group.1 NAC members ingest peyote both within and outside of ceremonial settings to practice their faith and to promote mental well-being.9The use of peyote for medicinal and religious purposes dates back many centuries.
Peyote rituals vary by tribe, but they are generally held on holidays and for special purposes, such as to pray for the health of a loved one or celebrate the birth of a child.1 Like other religions, ceremonies bring the community together and create a sense of unity.
Some members attribute peyote with mystical powers and make prayers to it. During peyote religious rituals, tribes may incorporate brightly decorated fans to represent the symbolic color visions often seen in hallucinations. Chiefs often wear beaded peyote necklaces, which consist of the plant’s mescal beans. Members may use drums or other items emblazoned with symbols of peyote.9
These festive, all-night ceremonies consist of dance, song, and prayer, and often conclude with morning prayers and a feast of blessed food. The use of the peyote within this religious framework has been likened to the Christian use of wine and bread.9
What Are the Risks?
The physical side effects of peyote can range from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous, depending on the health and medical history of the user. Some of the more worrisome effects include:4,5
- Excessive vomiting. (When prolonged and forceful enough, it could potentially result in tears and bleeding in the esophagus.)
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure.
- Impaired muscle coordination.
One of the greatest risks associated with peyote use is the potential for an adverse experience, known as a “bad trip.” The hallucinations caused by peyote can sometimes provoke highly adverse psychological responses, including feelings of terror, paranoia, panic, anxiety, or depression.5 Users experiencing a bad trip may be at increased risk of suicide, self-harm, or accidental physical injury. A bad trip can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues in the user.5
A person under the influence of peyote may act strangely or disorderly in public, which could result in legal or law enforcement entanglement. The dizziness and incoordination caused by the drug also puts the user at risk of injury due to accident, especially if they decide to drive a car. Another noted risk is the potential for hazardous interactions between peyote and other substances, especially alcohol.
About 4.2% of people who use hallucinogens experience flashbacks at some point in their lifetimes.One long-term risk associated with peyote and other hallucinogens is the development of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). This entails re-experiencing one or more perceptual symptoms of the hallucination when sober, also known as a “flashback.”10 About 4.2% of people who use hallucinogens experience flashbacks at some point in their lifetimes, though it is mostly associated with LSD use.10
What Are the Signs of a Problem?
People who use peyote repeatedly can develop a tolerance to the drug quickly, sometimes within just 3 days.5 Tolerance may be so pronounced that any amount of the drug will have no hallucinogenic effect whatsoever. The presence of tolerance, however, is used as a diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder.
In addition to physical tolerance, other signs that recreational peyote use has progressed to a hallucinogen use disorder include:10
- Unsuccessful attempts to reduce or abstain from using the drug.
- Intense desire or cravings for peyote.
- Spending a great amount of time or energy obtaining, using, and/or recovering from peyote.
- Continuing to use the drug despite its interference in external obligations, such as academics or work.
- Continuing to use peyote despite interpersonal or social problems caused by drug use.
- Using peyote in hazardous situations, such as driving under the influence.
- Continued drug use despite the person’s knowledge that it makes a physical or mental health condition worse.
Fortunately, those struggling with peyote abuse have options for help and recovery. Treatment can be performed in either an inpatient or outpatient setting, depending on various factors, including severity of peyote use, concurrent abuse of alcohol or other drugs, history of mental illness, physical health, and financial means.
Inpatient treatment entails 24/7 supervision, monitoring, and support by rehab staff. Inpatient treatment is typically recommended for anyone with moderate-to-severe addiction or history of chronic relapse.11 The presence of other mental health conditions or other substances of abuse are also best treated in an inpatient facility.
Outpatient treatment can be offered in various settings, such as specialized addiction clinics, treatment facilities, hospitals, or a physician’s office. Outpatient services are somewhat less intensive, as clients typically can continue living at home while attending scheduled treatment sessions multiple times per week. This is often the prescribed course of action for those with mild-to-moderate substance use disorders, or as a step-down level of treatment for those who have recently completed an inpatient program.11
While each treatment program varies in its requirements and structure, rehab patients can typically expect to receive group and individual counseling in which they will learn techniques for relapse prevention, practice coping skills to manage stress and cravings, and gain community-based support. Clients may also be required to participate in 12-step meetings, such as Narcotics Anonymous.
If you or a loved one is struggling with peyote or other hallucinogen abuse, you are not alone and help is available. It’s not too late to turn everything around and receive the quality treatment you deserve.
- Halpern, J. (2004). Hallucinogens and dissociative agents naturally growing in the United States. Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 102:131–138.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Peyote & Mescaline.
- Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Control Division. (n.d.). Title 21 code of Federal Regulations: Part 1307—Miscellaneous.
- Carstairs, S., Cantrell, L. (2010). Peyote and mescaline exposures: a 12-year review of a statewide poison center database. Clinical Toxicology. 48:350–353.
- University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Peyote.
- Krebs, T., Johansen, P. (2013). Over 30 million psychedelic users in the United States. F1000Research. 2:98.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2017). Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
- Johnston, L., O’Malley, P., Miech, R., et. al. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use 1975–2016: 2016 Overview—Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.
- Mumey, N. (1951). The Peyote Ceremony Among the American Indians. Reading from the 50th Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.