[pey-oh-tee; Sp. pe-yaw-te]
peyote, spineless cactus (Lophophora williamsii), ingested by indigenous people in Mexico and the United States to produce visions. The plant is native to the SW United States, particularly S Texas, and Mexico, where it grows in dry soil. The plant is light blue-green, bears small pink flowers, and has a carrot-shaped root. The mushroomlike crown, called a peyote, or mescal, button (but unrelated to the liquor mescal), is cut off, and chewed, brewed into a concoction for drinking, or rolled into pellets to be swallowed. The active substance in peyote is mescaline, one of several naturally occurring hallucinogenic drugs. An alkaloid, mescaline tastes bitter, causes an initial feeling of nausea, then produces visions and changes in perception, time sense, and mood. There are no uncomfortable aftereffects, and the drug is not physiologically habit-forming.

Peyote has been used by Native Americans since pre-Columbian times and was regarded as a panacea. It is important in the Native American Church, which fused Christian doctrine with peyote-eating tribal ritual. The use of peyote is said to produce a mental state that allows celebrants to feel closer to their ancestors and their Creator. In 1970, the state of Texas legalized peyote for use by Native Americans in religious ceremonies; a federal law confirming this protection was enacted in 1995. Aside from this use, peyote is a controlled substance, illegal in all 50 states.

See W. La Barre, The Peyote Cult (rev. ed. 1969).

Lophophora williamsii (lō-fof′ŏ-ră will-yăm′sē-ī), better known by its common name Peyote, (from the Nahuatl word peyotl), is a small, spineless cactus. It is native to southwestern Texas, through central Mexico. It is found primarily in the Chihuahuan desert and in the states of Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi among scrub, especially where there is limestone.

It is well known for its psychoactive alkaloids particularly mescaline. It is currently used world wide as a recreational drug, an entheogen, and supplement to various transcendence practices including meditation, psychonautics, and psychedelic psychotherapy. Peyote has a long history of ritual religious and medicinal use by indigenous Americans. It flowers from March through May, and sometimes as late as September. The flowers are pink.


The cactus flowers sporadically, producing small pink fruit, which is valued for its bitter-sweet taste when eaten. The seeds are small and black, requiring hot and humid conditions to germinate. Peyote contains a large spectrum of phenethylamine alkaloids, the principal of which is mescaline. The mescaline content of Lophophora williamsii is about 0.4% fresh (undried) and 3-6% dried. Peyote is extremely slow growing. Cultivated specimens grow considerably faster, sometimes taking less than three years to go from seedling to mature flowering adult. More rapid growth can be achieved by grafting Peyote onto mature San Pedro root stock.

The top of the cactus that grows above ground, also referred to as the crown, consists of disc-shaped buttons that are cut above the roots and sometimes dried. When done properly, the top of the root will callous and the root won't rot. When poor harvesting techniques are used, however, the entire plant dies. This is the current situation in South Texas where Peyote grows naturally, but has been over-harvested to the point of listing as endangered species. The buttons are generally chewed, or boiled in water to produce a psychoactive tea. Peyote is extremely bitter and, most people are nauseated before the onset of the psychoactive effects.

Distribution and habitat

L. williamsii is native to southern North America. In U.S.A. it grows in the state of Texas. In Mexico it grows in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas in the north to San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. It is primarily found at elevations of 100 to 1500 m and exceptionally up to 1900 metres in the Chihuahuan desert, but is also present in the more mild climate of the state of Tamaulipas. Its habitat is primarily in desert scrub, particularly thorn scrub in Tamaulipas, and it is most common on or near limestone hills.


The effective dose for mescaline is about 300 to 500 mg (equivalent to roughly 5 grams of dried peyote) and the effects last about 10 to 12 hours. When combined with appropriate set and setting, peyote is reported to trigger states of deep introspection and insight that have been described as being of a metaphysical or spiritual nature. At times, these can be accompanied by rich visual or auditory effects (see synesthesia).

In addition to psychoactive properties, Native Americans used the plant for its curative properties as well. They employed peyote for treating such varied ailments as toothache, pain in childbirth, fever, breast pain, skin diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, colds, and blindness. The U.S. Dispensatory lists peyote under the name Anhalonium and states it can be used in various preparations for neurasthenia, hysteria and asthma. Screening for antimicrobial activity of peyote extracts in various solvents showed positive microbial inhibition. The principle antibiotic agent, a water-soluble crystalline substance separated from an ethanol extract of the plant, was given the name peyocactin.

In the same study, mice were used for preliminary animal toxicity tests and protection studies to determine the degree of the inhibitory action of peyocactin against normally fatal infections with the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. In every case, the mice that had been given a peyocactin extract survived, while those in the control group died within 60 hours after infection. It proved effective against 18 strains of penicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, several other bacteria, and a fungus.

The flesh may also be applied topically to promote milk production (see galactogogue).

Long Term Use

A 2005 paper published in Biological Psychiatry outlines research conducted by Dr. John Halpern into peyote. "Psychological and Cognitive Effects of Long-Term Peyote Use Among Native Americans" found that Peyote users scored significantly better than non-users on the "general positive affect" and "psychological well-being" measures of the Rand Mental Health Inventory (RMHI), a standard instrument used to diagnose psychological problems and determine overall mental health. In contrast, alcohol abusers did significantly worse than the comparison group (non-users) in all measures of the RMHI.


Peyote is known to have been used since the middle of the Archaic period in the Americas by the people of the Oshara Tradition. Two specimens of peyote buttons found in archaeological digs from a site called Shumla Cave No. 5 on the Rio Grande in Texas were examined with radiocarbon dating and alkaloid analysis in 2005. The results dated the specimens to 3780 to 3660 BC, while alkaloid extraction yielded approximately 2% of the alkaloids including mescaline in both samples. This indicates that native North Americans were likely to have used peyote since at least five and a half thousand years ago. Specimens from a burial cave in west central Coahuila, Mexico have been similarly analysed and dated to 810 to 1070 AD. From earliest recorded time, peyote has been used by indigenous peoples, such as the Huichol of northern Mexico and by various Native American Tribal Groups, native to or relocated to the Southern Plains States of Oklahoma and Texas. Its usage has also been recorded among various Southwestern Athabaskan tribal groups, with the Mescalero and Kiowa (or "Plains Apache") having the dubious honor of being named or identified as the source or initial practitioners of the Peyote religion in the regions north of present-day Mexico. They are also the principal group that introduced peyote to newly arrived Northern Plains migrants, the Comanche and Kiowa.

There is documented evidence of the religious, ceremonial, and healing uses of peyote dating back over 20,000 years. The tradition began to spread northward as part of a revival of native spirituality under the auspices of what came to be known as the Native American Church, whose members refer to peyote as "the sacred medicine", and use it to combat alcoholism and spiritual, physical, and other social ills. Between the 1880s and 1930s, U.S. authorities attempted to ban Native American religious rituals involving peyote, including the Ghost Dance. The Native American Church is one among several religious organizations that use peyote as part of their religious practice.

Peyote and its associated religion are fairly recent arrivals among the Navajo in the Southwestern United States, and can be firmly dated to the early 20th century. There is no mention of peyote in traditional Navajo belief or ceremonial practice before its introduction by the neighboring Utes. The Navajo Nation now accounts for the largest number of members of the Native American Church and, according to some estimates, 20 percent or more of the Navajo population are practitioners.

The first person to draw the attention of the scientific world to peyote was Dr. John Raleigh Briggs (1851-1907).

A resurgence of interest in the use of peyote began in the 1970s with the early writings of Carlos Castaneda. In these works, which are widely regarded as wholly or mainly fictional, Don Juan Matus, said to be Castaneda's teacher in the use of peyote, uses the name "Mescalito" to refer to an entity that purportedly can be sensed by those using peyote to gain insight in how to live life well, but only if Mescalito accepts the user. In later works Castaneda asserted that the use of such psychotropic substances was not necessary to achieve heightened awareness, although, he reported, his teacher advised that its use was beneficial in helping to free some people's minds.

Popular culture

Many authors, especially those of the Beat Generation, wrote about their experiences with peyote, or were otherwise influenced by the plant. Ken Kesey, for example, while working as a night watchman at a psychiatric ward, was inspired to write his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest . One night while he was on the job under the influence of peyote he thought up Chief Bromden, who would turn out to be the central character in the novel, described by Tom Wolfe, in his novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as "a full-blown Indian -- Chief Broom -- the solution, the whole mothering key, to the novel". Another example is from William S. Burroughs' semi-autobiographical novel Queer. The protagonist and his unrequited lover are setting out to search the Amazon jungle for yage, another psychedelic drug, prompting the protagonist to recount his idiosyncratic struggles with the peyote experience. Also, an image of the plant, and by extension its possible usage, can be seen in the gonzo fist symbol attributed to Hunter S. Thompson. Hunter S Thompson also recounts experiences with mescaline, most notably in 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'

The image of the peyote plant has made its way into other media as well. The Eagles song "Bitter Creek" contains the line, "Oh peyote/She tried to show me/You know there ain't no cause to weep/at Bitter Creek." In the movie, Zoolander, hippie model Hansel talks about his psychedelic experience with peyote, falling off a mountain, and later realizing he had never even been to such a place. In the movie "Young Guns" the band of outlaws led by Billy the Kid while hiding from a pursuing posse consumed a peyote drink prepared by their native companion. They then proceeded through a hostile Indian village under the influence. The Indians all looked at them a bit bemused and Billy asks "Why ain't they killing us?" In one of the last episodes of The Sopranos, "Kennedy and Heidi", Tony Soprano takes peyote in Las Vegas with his nephew's former girlfriend Sonya, wins at roulette, then falls laughing on the casino floor. The next morning Tony and Sonya are along the rim of a canyon. Tony sees the flicker of the sunrise, prompting an emotional reaction to a sudden insight. While looking at the sun and he yells out, "I get it. I get it!".

In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a video game by Rockstar North, one of the characters (The Truth) mentions Peyote quite often in the game's cut scenes. There is also a classic-looking vehicle named Peyote in GTA IV.


United States

United States federal law (and many state laws) protects the harvest, possession, consumption and cultivation of peyote as part of "bonafide religious ceremonies" (the federal statute is 42 USC §1996a, "Traditional Indian religious use of the peyote sacrament," exempting only Native American use, while some state laws exempt any general "bonafide religious activity"). American jurisdictions enacted these specific statutory exemptions in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Employment Division v. Smith, , which held that laws prohibiting the use of peyote that do not specifically exempt religious use nevertheless do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Peyote is listed by the United States DEA as a Schedule I controlled substance. Although many American jurisdictions specifically allow religious use of peyote, religious or therapeutic use not under the aegis of the Native American Church has often been targeted by local law enforcement agencies, and non-Natives attempting to establish spiritual centers based on the consumption of peyote as a sacrament or as medicine, such as the Peyote Foundation in Arizona, have been prosecuted. The Peyote Way Church of God in Arizona is a spiritual center that welcomes all races to Peyotism.


Mescaline is listed as a Schedule III controlled substance under the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, but peyote is specifically exempt.


Convention on Psychotropic Substances#Article 32: RESERVATIONS of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances allows nations to exempt certain traditional uses of peyote from prohibition:
A State on whose territory there are plants growing wild which contain psychotropic substances from among those in Schedule I and which are traditionally used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites, may, at the time of signature, ratification or accession, make reservations concerning these plants, in respect of the provisions of article 7, except for the provisions relating to international trade.

See also


  • Shaman Golden Eagle Red Hawk, Choctaw Nation Mississippi River Clan

Further reading

  • Calabrese, Joseph D. "The Therapeutic Use of Peyote in the Native American Church" Chapter 3 in Vol. 1 of Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogens as Treatments Michael J. Winkelman and Thomas B. Roberts (editors) (2007). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
  • Feeney, Kevin. "The Legal Basis for Religious Peyote Use." Chapter 13 in Vol 1 of Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogens as Treatments Michael J. Winkelman and Thomas B. Roberts (editors) (2007). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.

External links

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