Common names: Peyote; Buttons; Mescalito
Plant source: Lophophora williamsii (Peyote cactus)
Legal status in Canada:
- Peyote cactus – legal, due to a specific exemption for religious use
- Mescaline – Schedule III controlled substance
Price: $20 / button
Long term negative neuropsychological effects: none, according to a study of a population of Native Americans who use peyote for religious purposes (see Peyote Bends But Doesn’t Alter Minds)
“In consciousness dwells the wondrous,
with it man attains the realm beyond the material,
and the Peyote tells us,
where to find it.”
Antonin Artaud, The Tarahumars (1947)
According to radio carbon dating of ancient peyote buttons, peyote has been used by the indigenous peoples of what is now Mexico and Texas (USA) for medicinal purposes for at least five and a half thousand years. To me, this seems like a pretty good indicator of its efficacy.
After many hours on three separate planes, I have finally made it to Texas to experience the teachings of peyote with a member of the Navajo people. After my experience with ayahuasca, I have to admit that I think I might have found some benefit in starting small, but it’s too late to ponder that now and I must prepare myself for the next phase of my inner journey.
I’m staying at a retreat with an unusual collection of other visitors. In contrast with the group I met in Peru, these characters range from 20-something new age hippies, to local Native American people of all ages, to middle aged suits seeking enlightenment, and even a grandmother who brought three suitcases of designer clothes. My guess is that the locale is a little more inviting to those who might not be ready for the extremes of the jungle.
The peyote cactus is native to Mexico and southwestern Texas.
The traditional, ceremonial use of peyote is centralized to the indigenous peoples of these areas, and especially the Huichol.
Botanical aspects and preparation
The peyote cactus grows wild and can also be cultivated indoors. The psychotropic effects of peyote are primarily due to the mescaline contained in the cacti buttons. When mature, peyote buttons are usually dried and then eaten or made into a tea. A single button can take 5-15 years to mature, and so peyote is not widely available in Canada.
Chemical constituents and neural action
The pharmacological activity of peyote depends on mescaline, which binds to and activates serotonin-2 receptors, likely leading to excitation of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. It also stimulates dopamine receptors.
I gathered in the evening with my fellow travelers and our guides who were members of the Native American Church. We were each given a cup of peyote tea to drink: a bitter, unpleasant liquid. Then we all sat for about half an hour listening to songs and the beat of a drum.
Before I realized it, I was starting to feel the effects. At first it took the form of minor changes in perception and muscle tension, followed by a swiftly growing wave of nausea. I threw up, which I was told was an expected part of the process. After settling back into my spot on the floor I started to feel more comfortable. A sense of tranquility began to wash over me, and the flickering flames in the center of our gathering began to take on shapes, and faces peered out from the fire. I began to see halos of light and colour in the room, and upon closing my eyes the effects became especially vivid. I sat in this state for a five or six hours, and started to feel more contemplative and receptive as time wore on and the peyote effects wore off. This experience was quite a bit softer, or at least less dramatic than the one I had in the jungle with ayahuasca. From each plant teacher I learned a different lesson.
For more info
If you are interested in learning more about peyote and its traditional use, I would recommend the Peyote video on the National Geographic website.