A small peyote cactus in a planter

The peyote cactus, or Lophophora williamsii, is unassuming at first glance. It’s small and spineless, unlike other cacti.

The small buttons that grow from the plant have a substance called mescaline inside. Peyote is an important part of religious rituals because of the effects of this chemical component. Mescaline made it the focus of some legal disputes.

The chemical makeup of mescaline is comparable to other hallucinogenic substances like LSD and psilocybin (shrooms).

Peyote is usually prepared by cutting the buttons from the plant.

The buttons can be eaten. They can be soaked in water to make a tea. Some spiritual practitioners consume it in this way.

The buttons can be ground into a powder and smoked with tobacco or cannabis. The bitter taste of this powder can be avoided by putting it in capsule.

The mescaline can be made into pills or liquid. Mescaline can be created in a lab.

Mescaline works by increasing the amount of serotonin and dopamine bonded to receptors in the brain. These two neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings of happiness and elation, and in large quantities produce psychedelic effects.

The psychological effects of mescaline are vivid.

Users claim to be able to see music or colors. They may have visions and altered perception of time and space. Sounds may be more distinct, and colors may appear brighter.

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, also known as 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:

  • nausea
  • The body temperature is elevated.
  • “It’s cold.”
  • sweating or shivering

Among certain indigenous populations across the Americas, peyote is believed to have medical properties.It’s been said to aid in the treatment of everything from toothaches to diabetes.

There is little research on the effectiveness of the drugs for other ailments, despite their popularity as a treatment for treatment-resistant depression.

The long-term effects of peyote are also poorly understood.According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there’s no link between long-term peyote use and psychological or intellectual disabilities. But frequent users may experience flashbacks.

Users of the drug may experience a comedown, a period of time when the drug is not being used, in which lower moods or shifting moods may be more common.

Research on peyote addiction is limited. But the NIDA notes that mescaline, like most hallucinogenic drugs, does not prompt drug-seeking behavior with repeated use.

Users can develop a tolerance to certain hallucinogenic substances over time. Larger doses of substances with unknown effects carry more risk.

There is no known number of people who use peyote or synthetic mescaline as a recreational drug. It is usually excluded from surveys of drug use.

The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 2.6 percent of people over the age of 12 reported using some form of hallucinogen within the past year.

Under federal law in the United States, recreational use of peyote is illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies peyote and synthetic mescaline as Schedule 1 substances, the category with no real medical uses and the highest risk of abuse.

Peyote is still used for religious purposes among some indigenous groups. These communities have used peyote for centuries to encourage visions.

The Native American Church, a recognized religious institution that spans a wide variety of tribal communities, is an exception to the federal ban on peyote use. The peyote can be used by tribal members without fear of federal penalties.

States have their own laws. They have to follow the federal regulations, which limit the use of peyote to legitimate religious use.

As recreational hallucinogen use has become more popular and prompted pushes for decriminalization, some indigenous leaders have expressed concern about the preservation of their traditional practice.

Listening to firsthand accounts from members of the indigenous populations who use peyote is the best way to learn more about the cultural history and usage of the drug.

Try starting with this video from Harvard’s divinity school or this college student’s documentary about his family’s peyote meeting.

Peyote is not allowed in the United States outside of ritual contexts. The side effects and risks of peyote are unknown.