What is Peyote?

Baby Peyote CactusLophophora williathemsii, known by its common name of peyote, is a spineless cactus found in southern Texas and northern Mexico. Although the flowers on the cactus do not bloom on a regular basis, when they do appear, they produce a pink fruit that is edible. The cactus contains mescaline and other psychoactive alkaloids, and as such is commonly used as a psychotic drug. The drug is made from harvested 'buttons' that grow on the tops of the roots. The mescaline content of dried peyote is high (as much as six percent) but is only one percent in undried peyote.

Interestingly enough, the purpose of the mescaline found in the peyote cactus is to repel potential predators. The cactus is very small and has no spines to provide protection, so it instead produces mescaline. The mescaline causes a severe reaction in animals that eat it. From then on, those unfortunate enough to eat the mescaline will avoid it in the future.

For thousands of years, peyote has been used during the religious ceremonies of various Native American tribes. Today, recreational use of the drug is prohibited, but members of the Native American Church are allowed to use it in spiritual contexts.

Peyote is currently listed as an endangered species, due to over-harvesting and slow growth in the wild. Cultivated peyote grows somewhat faster, but still takes at least three years to mature. The cactus is limited to a very small region, so the rate at which it is being depleted is alarming. When grown and used in a sustainable manner, peyote can provide a number of spiritual and cultural benefits to the Indian tribes that use it.

History of Peyote

Little is known about peyote use prior to the arrival of the Europeans during the 16th century. Carbon dating suggests consumption of the substance as early as 3780 B.C. Although its natural habitat was limited to a small region in present-day Mexico, the plant was well-known among tribes living over 1,000 miles away (Stewart, 17)

The history of controversy surrounding peyote is short compared to its history of consumption. That being said, peyote has been regarded with suspicion from the moment European explorers set foot on North American soil.When the first Europeans arrived on the shores of what is now the United States they encountered widespread use of peyote among dozens of Native American tribes. The earliest known mention of peyote came from Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century explorer devoted to Native American culture. In his writings, Sahagun shared his early observations of the substance: “"There is another herb like tunas [Spanish name for prickly pears] of the earth. It is called Peiotl. It is white. It is found in the north country. Those who eat or drink it see visions either frightful or laughable. This intoxication lasts two or three days and then ceases. It is a common food of the Chichimeca, for it sustains them and gives them courage to fight and not feel fear nor hunger nor thirst. And they say that it protects them from all danger." (Neal, 234)

Sahgun's observations may have been objective, but others viewed peyote with a great deal of suspicion. One Spanish missionary referred to it as a “diabolical root.” (peyote.org) It appears that the European feared the substance because of its connection to "heathen rituals and superstitions." Several witnesses of these rituals reported that peyote users experienced terrifying visions. This information was more than enough to scare off any other potential users.

Missionaries and explorers condemned those who used or had a history of using peyote. In a catechism dedicated to techniques for converting the Native Americans, one missionary described questions that should be asked of potential converts: “Dost thou suck to blood of others? Dost thou wander about at night, calling upon demons to help thee? Hast thou drunk Peyote or given it to others to drink, in order to discover secrets or to discover where stolen or lost articles were?" (peyote.org)

The Inquisition joined the effort to banish peyote from the newly converted Christians. An issued edict declared “the use of the herb or root called peyote...introduced into these Provinces for the purpose of detecting thefts, of divining other happenings and of foretelling future events, it is an act of superstition condemned as opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic Faith.” (Stewart, 21) The edict also banned all members of the church from using peyote in any form. Those found disobeying this rule would be punished the same as if they had committed heresy. In the century following the ruling, there were 74 Inquisition hearings involving the use of peyote. (Stewart, 22) Researchers estimate that hundreds of converts continued using the drug but either were adept at hiding it or were not disciplined by the courts.

In the end, it was not the Inquisition that brought an end to widespread use of peyote. As the region sustained major changes during the 18th and 19th centuries, the majority of the local tribes died out. With them went the old peyote ceremonies. There was still some use of peyote as a folk medicine, but it was on a very small scale.

After it died out in the southern region, several Indian tribes in the Midwest began using peyote as a part of a revival of traditional practices. These groups came to be known as the Native American Church. As the religious revival continued to grow in prominence, United States authorities began pushing for the restriction and eventual banning of the drug. Authorities also sought to ban the Ghost Dance and other religious rituals that in any way involved the use of peyote.

Further regulations occurred in later decades. These were mostly a result of the the American Medical Association research that found peyote to be habit forming. By 1965, the drug had been added to a long list of controlled psychedelic substances. However, the 1965 ruling differed from past anti-peyote efforts in that it allowed Native Americans to continue using it for religious practices. In most regions, the use of peyote remained illegal under strict state laws. The state laws also eventually eased up, with the majority of states allowing the use of peyote for religious reasons by the late 1970s. In 1994, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act provided a federal exemption for peyote used in Native American Church ceremonies.

Chemical Makeup

Mescaline StructureThe main psychoactive compound found in peyote is mescaline. This naturally occurring alkaloid acts as a partial agonist in order to activate the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor. The activation of this particular serotonin receptor creates a state of psychedelia. Researchers are uncertain as to why this happens, but they believe it has something to do with the neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Mescaline is also responsible for activating the serotonin 5-HT2C receptor as well as stimulating the dopamine receptors.

Sources Cited:
A Brief History of Peyote. Web.

Neal, Richard McKenzie. The Path to Addiction...: and Other Troubles We Are Born to Know. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2008. Print.

Stewart, Omer Call. Peyote Religion: a History. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1987. Print.

Center for Substance Abuse Research. Web.