views updated May 29 2018


What Kind of Drug Is It?

Mescaline is a hallucinogen, which is a substance that produces hallucinations. Such hallucinations cause the user to experience strange sights, sounds, or other perceptions of things that are not actually present. Mescaline is a naturally occurring alkaloid that is produced by certain types of cactus plants. The best known of these plants is the peyote cactus. The natural ingredients that cause hallucinations in people can also be produced artificially in a laboratory.

For many thousands of years, various Native American groups (in the present United States and Mexico) have consumed peyote in religious rituals. In fact, some native peoples still do. They believe that the hallucinations they experience are visions, or messages from spirits who can help them understand themselves and their place in the world. During the twentieth century, mescaline was studied as a possible treatment for mental illness, but no medical use was found for it.

Some abuse of mescaline as a recreational drug occurred during the last half of the twentieth century, but not in any widespread way. (Recreational users are those who take a drug for the high it produces, not for any medical reason.) Peyote use is not widespread because both natural and artificial forms of it are expensive and hard to find. Much of what may be sold on the street as "mescaline" is actually some other substance that is probably more dangerous than the real thing.


Mescaline is considered the oldest known hallucinogenic drug. Its strange qualities were most likely discovered accidentally, by ancient people who were experimenting to find out which plants made good food. Mescaline was not a good food. In fact, it usually causes people to have intense stomachaches if they eat it.

Official Drug Name: Mescaline (MES-cuh-leen or MES-cuh-lin), peyote (pay-OH-tee)

Also Known As: Big chief, blue cap, buttons, cactus buttons, cactus head, chief, mesc, mescal, moon, topi

Drug Classifications: Schedule I, hallucinogen

The History of an Ancient Plant

Despite causing pain and vomiting, however, mescaline-containing plants rarely cause death. Intense, colorful, often terrifying

hallucinations follow consumption, lasting for many hours. These vivid pictures and sounds, which exist only in the user's mind, appear to be completely real to the mescaline user. The people who lived in regions where mescaline-producing plants grew believed that the hallucinations were messages from spirits and gods, so the plants became very important in their culture.

archaeologists have discovered evidence suggesting that peyote was used in sacred rituals some 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists in Coahuila, Mexico, found a skeleton with a beaded necklace of dried peyote buttons that dates back 1,000 years. In Peru, a carving of a peyote cactus on a stone tablet dates back to 1300 bce. One archaeological dig in Shumla Cave in Texas uncovered dried, mescaline-containing plant matter that appeared to date back to 5,000 bce.

The earliest written information about mescaline use comes from Fray Bernardino Sahagun (1499–1590), a Spanish missionary who lived among the Indians of Mexico and studied their culture. He stated that the buttons of the peyote plant were sometimes eaten when fighting was likely, because it took away sensations of hunger, thirst, and fear. Dr. Francisco Hernandez, the personal doctor to King Phillip II of Spain, was the first to describe the peyote plant itself. He noted that in addition to peyote buttons being used for spiritual purposes, the root of the plant could be ground up and applied as a paste for the relief of pain in the joints.

When the Spanish began to take control of Mexico in the 1500s, they tried to stamp out the use of peyote and other mescaline-producing plants. Most Spanish people of that era were devout Catholics and regarded mescaline use as a pagan ritual. Paganism is used to describe non-Christian religions that worship many gods. The Spanish did not accept paganism and believed that those native peoples who used peyote and related plants were calling on evil spirits. By 1720, a law had been passed in Mexico outlawing the use of peyote. Still, followers of the peyote cults continued to conduct their ceremonies in secret.

Nineteenth-Century Uses

As European settlements spread across North America, so did the use of mescaline-producing cacti. The first recorded use of peyote in the United States was in 1760. By the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865), some Native American tribes were very familiar with the plants and had developed rituals around their use. The Kiowa and Comanche Indians drew attention for their peyote ceremonies around the year 1880. They had probably learned about peyote when they carried out raids on the Mescalero Indians of northern Mexico.

The Kiowa and Comanche Indians may have embraced the peyote rituals because such practices seemed to offer them some hope of holding on to their traditional way of life. During this era, the Indians' lifestyle was being drastically changed as the U.S. government began forcing the native peoples on to reservations. Quahadi Comanche chief Quanah Parker (c. 1845-1911) was one of the first people to mix elements of the Christian religion with traditional peyote ceremonies. Parker was the son of a Comanche man and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians as a child.

In 1918, the Native American Church (NAC) was founded, giving an official framework to the ritual use of peyote in religious ceremonies. At the same time, a long debate began about whether

or not it should be legal for certain churches to use substances that are normally illegal. The debate continues to unfold. For Native Americans, the issue is one of religious freedom.

During the late nineteenth century, the Western world began to take a scientific interest in hallucinogenic substances. In 1897, German chemist Arthur Heffter (1859–1925) became the first person to identify mescaline as the essential chemical in peyote that caused hallucinations. It was the first hallucinogenic compound to be synthesized, or removed from its parent plant in that way.

From Native Cultures to Modern Use

Shamans, or medicine men, in native cultures had long used peyote and other mescaline-producing plants to treat a variety of ailments, both physical and spiritual. Since the effects of these substances seemed to create states similar to insanity, Western scientists hoped that they might be somehow useful in treating mental illness. They also thought they might get a better understanding of mental illness if they could learn more about the ways in which hallucinogenic substances alter the brain's activity. For many years, serious research was done on mescaline and other hallucinogens, both natural and human-made. Even as research went on, some states passed laws to make the use of peyote and related substances illegal. In 1927, New Mexico was the first state to do so.

Mescaline was rarely used outside of native cultures until the mid-twentieth century, when British novelist Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) wrote a book called The Doors of Perception, which described his personal experiments with peyote. Huxley's book, published in 1953, was popular reading during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when experimentation with drugs was widespread. Timothy Leary (1920–1996), a professor at Harvard University, also undertook many personal experiments with mescaline and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a human-made hallucinogen. Leary's writings further promoted interest in hallucinogens, especially on college campuses. Street use of these substances became more common at that time.

Many people believed that research on hallucinogenic drugs, or psychedelics as they were also called, had gone on for long enough, and that no helpful information had been learned. However, the abuse of psychedelics was spreading, with dangerous results. Often users had what were called "bad trips," or experiences that were depressing or terrifying. It was also reported that users might have "flashbacks," or recurrences of their drug experiences even when they were not taking the drug. Organizations concerned with public health and safety warned that heavy use of hallucinogens, including any form of mescaline, could result in damage to blood vessels, convulsions, and permanent brain damage.

Laws Ban Hallucinogens

In 1967, the U.S. government passed a law that made hallucinogens illegal throughout the country. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act defined peyote, mescaline, and every other hallucinogen as a Schedule I drug, meaning that they have no known medical use. At that time, legal research on mescaline came to an end. Street use of peyote and other forms of mescaline declined sharply and was virtually nonexistent at the end of the twentieth century. Whether peyote and other hallucinogenic plants can be used legally as part of the religious ceremonies of Native Americans is still hotly debated.

The Native American Church (NAC)

The Ghost Dance religious movement began in 1869 but quickly died out. It was revived in 1889 by Wovoka (c. 1858–1932), a Piute medicine man, who had a vision. In his dream, Jesus Christ came to help Native Americans save their way of life, which was rapidly being destroyed by white settlers and the U.S. government. The dance was supposed to bring back the dead, hence the name Ghost Dance. Leaders from many tribes were interested in learning about the religious movement. Its rituals included five nights of dancing and intense shaking. Those taking part in the dance would enter a trance-like state. Dancers soon began wearing specially made shirts that they believed would protect them from the white man's bullets.

Representatives of the U.S. government were concerned that the Ghost Dance movement would lead to uprisings and tried to outlaw it. In 1890, in a tragic incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the U.S. Army massacred more than 200 Sioux, including men, women, and children. The Ghost Dance shirts offered no protection against the army's guns. After the incident, the Ghost Dance movement faded.

Forced to live on reservations, many Native Americans experienced poverty and depression. Some turned to alcoholism. In 1918 the Native American Church (NAC) was established in an effort to pull together the scattered remains of the native cultures. Following in the tradition of earlier Native American leaders such as Quanah Parker, John Wilson, and John Rave, the NAC combined Christian beliefs with traditional rituals. The establishment of the NAC was also strongly supported by James Mooney, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1920 NAC membership was made up of 13,000 members from 30 tribes. By 2005 it had grown to 300,000 members, including some people who are not of Native American ancestry.

Peyote rituals differ from one chapter of the church to another, but they are usually very structured. A typical service might be held in a tepee, constructed over an altar made of clay. Often there is ritual purification and confession of sins, and a period of silence. After the peyote is consumed, there may be a prolonged period of chanting and dancing. Sometimes, this period is so long that the people involved become exhausted when the effects of the peyote wear off. Ceremonies may be held for special occasions or on a monthly basis. A person called the Roadman leads them. The ritual itself is sometimes called the Peyote Road.

What Is It Made Of?

Mescaline-producing plants grow in only a few areas of the world. The word "mescaline" refers to the active ingredient in the plants that causes the hallucinogenic effects. However, it is often used as a name for the plants as a whole, or for the parts of the plants that are eaten, in whatever way they may be prepared. The two main sources of mescaline are both members of the plant family Cactaceae. They are the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi). The peyote cactus is by far the best known of the mescaline plants, so much so that the word peyote is often used to mean any type of mescaline.

The true peyote cactus is a gray-green or blue-green plant. It grows close to the ground and looks something like a small cushion divided up into sections that are called podarea. The podarea are arranged around a center piece that has a woolly look to it, as it is made up of tufted hairs called trichomes. Unlike other cacti, it does not have sharp, prickly spines to protect itself.

The peyote cactus grows naturally in an area stretching from southern Texas to southern Mexico. There are a few variations of Lophophora williamsii, including Echinocactus williamsii and Lophophora echinata var. diffusa. A close relative of peyote, the cactus Lophophora diffusa grows only in the dry region of Queretaro, Mexico, in the central part of the country. It is yellow-green in color, has a fleshier body than the peyote cactus, and lacks the well-defined podarea.

Slow Growing

The peyote is one of the slowest-growing of all cacti. A plant is not considered mature until it is about thirteen years old. If it reaches the age of thirty, it will still be only about the size of a baseball. The Native Americans call a plant of this size and age "Father Peyote" or "Grandfather Peyote." Usually, a peyote cactus must grow for at least four years before it will produce even one "button," or dime-sized section on its top. It is the button that is cut off and eaten for the hallucinogenic effects. The name of the plant is thought to come from either a Nahuatl word, pi-youtl, which means "silk cocoon" or "caterpillar cocoon," or from the Mexican word piule, which simply means "hallucinogenic plant."

The San Pedro cactus looks quite different from the peyote. It does have prickly spines, and it grows in tall columns, sometimes reaching as high as twenty feet. It originated in the mountain regions of Peru and Ecuador, but has become widespread, because it is often sold as an ornamental plant. Like the peyote cactus, the San Pedro has some close relatives within its Trichocereus family that contain hallucinogenic compounds.

Numbers Declining

Although these psychoactive cacti all contain between forty to sixty alkaloids, or nitrogen-containing compounds, mescaline is the only alkaloid among them that is known to cause hallucinations. The

amount of mescaline in a cactus depends on the maturity of the plant. On average, a peyote cactus might contain about 4 percent mescaline. It can be extracted from the plant, and in its pure form, it is crystalline.

Mescaline can also be artificially produced in a laboratory. Pure mescaline, either extracted or manufactured, is extremely rare, however, because it is very expensive to produce. Therefore, almost all mescaline used is in the form of peyote buttons, or material from one of the other mescaline-producing plants. The number of peyote cacti is declining, in part because of the development of roads and buildings in the places where the plants grow naturally.

How Is It Taken?

Usually, dried buttons from the peyote cactus are chewed up and swallowed in order to get the mescaline into the body. Users eat from twelve to thirty of these pods at a time. Sometimes the buttons are brewed in hot water, which is then consumed as a tea. Dried peyote buttons are sometimes ground into a powdered form, which can be put in capsules. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it takes a dose of about 0.3–0.5 grams of mescaline to produce hallucinations. That would be the amount contained in approximately 5 grams of dried peyote. It takes about 0.5 grams of synthetic mescaline to produce hallucinations, but the cost of producing this substance is so high that it would cost between $50 and $100 for each use.

Therefore, mescaline is almost nonexistent in the world of illegal drugs, as there is very little market for it. Authorities report that most tablets or capsules sold as "synthetic mescaline" have a very small amount of real mescaline in them. Usually they have been mixed with another substance, often phencyclidine (PCP), LSD, or ecstasy (MDMA). All of these drugs can be much more dangerous than true mescaline.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

Native peoples believed that physical illness was a reflection of a spiritual problem. Their shamans, or medicine men, treated the body and spirit together in ways that blended spiritual beliefs and practices with herbal remedies. Those who came from the peyote cultures considered peyote to be a powerful medicine. It was used in a variety of ways, from grinding the root to make a paste for sore joints, to using the buttons to help combat depression and alcoholism. The use of alcohol became a serious problem for many Native Americans after their way of life was disrupted by white settlers, who forced them off their lands and on to reservations. The alcohol brought by white settlers was also new to native peoples, so their bodies were unaccustomed and more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

Western researchers became interested in the possible uses of mescaline as soon as they became aware of it. By the late 1800s, people were already working to find ways that mescaline and other hallucinogens might be useful in understanding and treating insanity. By the 1960s, interest in the possible beneficial uses of mind-altering drugs was at its peak. It was hoped that mescaline, along with human-made hallucinogens such as LSD, might be able to treat depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and other mental illnesses. Yet, no

definite use for them was ever found, and all legal research came to a halt in 1970 when the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act ruled that such substances have no known use in medicine. Nevertheless, during the 1990s there was some renewed interest in studying the effects of peyote after testimony was given before the U.S. Congress. At that time, advocates of peyote talked about its use in treating alcoholism among the Native American population.

Usage Trends

The use of peyote was well established among the Aztecs and other native peoples in the New World long before the arrival of the first Europeans. Spanish authorities in Mexico outlawed peyote in 1720, but its use continued to be widespread, although the rituals were conducted in secret. Use of peyote extended northward during the 1800s. It increased dramatically when Native Americans were being removed from their traditional lands and resettled on government reservations. Shortly after the start of the twentieth century, the NAC was founded, which incorporated peyote use with Christian and other religious beliefs. It remains active to this day. In modern times, the Huichol and Tarahumara Indians in Mexico still use peyote in traditional ceremonies.

Experimentation and Research on Mescaline

Outside of Native American religious ceremonies, there was little use of mescaline by anyone for many years, except for those involved in research. However, that situation changed during the mid-twentieth century. The writings of novelist Aldous Huxley, Harvard professor Timothy Leary, and anthropologist Carlos Castaneda (c. 1925–1998), all of whom experimented with peyote and related substances, sparked a wider interest in these drugs and the vivid visions they cause. Castaneda wrote several books supposedly describing his experiences with a Mexican medicine man, who introduced him to an otherworldly being called "Mescalito." Mescalito was said to give insight to those seeking his guidance through peyote. Castaneda detailed many strange and terrifying visions, but in his later works, he downplayed the importance of using hallucinogens to gain greater spiritual awareness.

At the height of the drug subculture of the 1960s and 1970s, there was some street use of peyote and other forms of mescaline. However, much of what was sold as mescaline was probably something else since the natural and artificial forms of the drug have always been difficult to obtain and are quite expensive when they are available. Peyote is one of the slowest-growing plants. Plus, its natural habitat is being threatened due to continued development of land for building and cattle grazing. Therefore, it is unlikely to become more plentiful. In Texas, it is cultivated legally and protected under the supervision of Texas legal authorities for use within the NAC.

A report by the DEA revealed how little peyote and mescaline are used as street drugs. From 1980 to 1987, about 19.4 pounds (9 kilograms) of peyote were taken in drug raids. In contrast, 15 million pounds (7 million kilograms) of marijuana were confiscated during the same timeframe. Furthermore, no illegal trafficking of peyote was reported at all. After 1998, mescaline showed up infrequently on government reports, usually being included in a category such as "other hallucinogens," which refers to hallucinogens other than LSD. The "2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)" reported that overall hallucinogen use dropped from 4.7 million users in 2002 to 3.9 million users in 2003. The study showed that 1 percent of youths between the ages of twelve and seventeen abused hallucinogens, with .8 percent of adults above the age of twenty-six abusing them.

Effects on the Body

Peyote buttons taste very bitter and unpleasant, as do the teas and powders made from them and other psychoactive cacti. Frequently, the human body's first response to them is intense stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. Approximately thirty to sixty minutes after the substance is eaten, its effects on the brain begin to occur. Hallucinations are most intense for approximately two hours, but the effects of the drug may last for as long as ten to twelve hours. Mescaline's other effects can include trembling, sweating, dizziness, numbness, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, dilated pupils, and anxiety. It can cause contractions of the intestines and the uterus, which could be dangerous for pregnant women taking the drug.

Much of what is known about how hallucinogens, including mescaline, work on the brain was learned during research done on LSD in the 1960s and 1970s. The chemical structure of these types of drugs is similar to that of serotonin, a naturally occurring substance within the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or chemical that passes signals from one nerve cell to another in order to relay messages to the brain. Serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter, but it is especially important because it regulates many of the others.

Playing with the Senses

Hallucinogens seem to disrupt the normal interaction between nerve cells and neurotransmitters within the brain. This causes the sight, smell, sound, and feel of things in the real world to become strangely warped. Emotions may also be wildly exaggerated or out-of-place due to the chemical changes being caused in the brain. Rapid mood swings are common, with users laughing for no apparent reason, only to become terrified the next moment. Emotions may seem to be layered or to come in waves. Someone who has taken a hallucinogen may feel a heightened awareness of all kinds of things, and senses may become confused.

The drug-induced state of any hallucinogen is commonly referred to as a trip. Trips can be good or bad. People have frequently reported trips that make them feel happy, stimulated, or more aware of themselves and their place in the world. This is one reason why researchers have thought that psychedelic drugs might have a valid medical use in treating mental and emotional illness.

Seeing Sounds and Hearing Colors

Users of hallucinogens report that they "see sounds" or "hear colors." This phenomenon of blended sensory experiences is called synesthesia (sinn-ess-THEE-zhuh). Although other hallucinogens may play strange tricks with the appearance of reality, mescaline seems to have the strongest tendency to conjure up vividly colored visions that have little or nothing to do with the user's actual environment.

But not every trip is good. For various reasons, which are not well-understood, people who take hallucinogens may instead experience a "bad trip." In a bad trip situation, hallucinations can be extremely terrifying and realistic. Feelings of unbearable sadness and anxiety may consume the user. Users may feel completely out of control, that they are going insane, or that they are about to die. They may have false feelings of power and attempt to do things that are dangerous. Or, they may become fearful about the frightening hallucinations they see and then panic, endangering themselves trying to escape their visions.

Is It Really Mescaline?

It is important to realize that anything sold on the street as "mescaline" may in fact be mixed with other drugs or substances. Or, it may be completely made up of some other psychedelic drug or unknown substance. True mescaline is rare. Common additives to false mescaline tablets are LSD and PCP. Sometimes called "angel dust," PCP can cause extreme fear and aggressive behavior, as well as convulsions and coma. These types of side effects would rarely be caused by mescaline without the addition of another drug.

Some drugs are known as mescaline analogs. They are made in a laboratory and are similar in chemical structure to mescaline, but far more dangerous. These include the "designer drugs" MDA and MDMA, or ecstasy. Other dangerous amphetamines and methamphetamines are also classified as mescaline analogs. Any of these manufactured drugs may be added to or sold as genuine mescaline, but they are even more dangerous than the real substance would be. Side effects cannot be predicted or understood when additives are unknown. Plus, there is no way of really knowing what is in a tablet or capsule of something that is sold as "peyote" or "mescaline" on the street.

Lingering Problems in Users

A true overdose of genuine mescaline or peyote is rare, although even a low dose of the substance can leave users feeling very ill. It is not considered as addictive as many drugs are, including heroin and cocaine. If people develop a habit of using drugs like heroin or cocaine, their bodies will go through withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop. That means they will feel very ill because their bodies have developed a physical need for the drug. This is not the case with mescaline, but that does not mean there are no consequences for using it.

When a mescaline trip ends, there is a dip in serotonin activity in the brain. This may lead to a condition called dysphoria, or a general feeling of restlessness, anxiety, and depression. When people use hallucinogens frequently, they will develop a tolerance, meaning that they need larger and larger doses to get the same effect. This tolerance carries over from one psychedelic drug to another. In other words, a heavy user of mescaline would also have a high tolerance to LSD. The body's level of tolerance to the substance will revert to normal levels, however, if use is discontinued.

Psychedelic use can potentially lead to two long-term mental health problems. One is known as hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD), more commonly known as flashbacks. In a flashback, the user enters hallucinogenic states even though he or she has not taken a recent dose of the drug. Long-term use of hallucinogens can also lead to a condition called persistent or drug-induced psychosis. This occurs when former users fall into long-lasting states similar to psychosis. They may be severely depressed, experience mood swings, and have distorted visions and other hallucinations. These symptoms can go on for years, and may occur in people who have no previous history of mental illness.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Drug users sometimes combine drugs to obtain different or more intense effects. "Love flipping" or taking a "love trip" is the practice of taking mescaline and ecstasy at the same time. Ecstasy is a mescaline analog, or an artificially produced drug with chemical similarities to mescaline. It has very dangerous side effects, which could be made even more extreme by taking it at the same time as mescaline.

Treatment for Habitual Users

There are no formally recognized treatments for hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD) and drug-induced psychosis. People experiencing flashbacks may become confused and fearful about the renewed hallucinations. They often feel they have suffered brain damage and are losing their minds. psychotherapy may help these patients to deal with the episodes. Antidepressants may also be useful for those suffering from HPPD and drug-induced psychosis. Users should consult their doctors to determine the best course of treatment.


Mescaline can have serious long-term effects on users. HPPD and drug-induced psychosis can require extended treatment. This can affect job performance and personal relationships. People

who had psychological problems before taking mescaline may find those problems become worse after taking the drug. Normal social functioning is certainly made more difficult by the hallucinations, confusion, and strong emotions that users may experience. Anxiety and fear caused by a bad trip can lead to poor judgment and dangerous acts that could endanger the user or other people.

Even if a user does not experience a bad trip or have HPPD or drug-induced psychosis, there are still serious consequences that go along with using mescaline, peyote, and the other psychoactive cacti. This is because they are illegal. The DEA has defined peyote as a Schedule I hallucinogen, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Using any Schedule I substance, including peyote or mescaline, can lead to a long prison sentence. Even members of the NAC can be prosecuted if they use peyote outside their religious ceremonies. Although the federal guidelines refer to the peyote cactus, L. Williamsii, the penalties are the same for anyone buying other psychoactive cacti with the intention of extracting or using their active ingredients.

Legal consequences can be even more severe for U.S. citizens if they travel to other countries. Using, buying, selling, or carrying any type of drug, including mescaline or peyote, outside of the United States could result in interrogation and imprisonment for weeks, months, and perhaps even for life. Every country has its own laws and punishments for drug trafficking and use. Some countries make no distinctions between a person carrying a small amount of an illegal substance for personal use and someone acting as a large-scale drug trafficker. In some countries, even the most minor drug offenses are punishable by death.

The Law

The legal history of mescaline and its primary source, peyote, is long and somewhat complicated. The ban on its use for recreational purposes is clear. It is classified as a Schedule I hallucinogen, meaning that there is no medical reason it may be possessed, sold, or used. Doing so may result in severe penalties, including imprisonment and heavy fines. However, peyote is a long-established part of the religious rituals of Native Americans. The founding of the NAC in the early twentieth century gave support to this practice by making peyote use part of an established religion, rather than just a cultural tradition. Declaring peyote use illegal in its religious setting puts the federal drug laws in opposition to First Amendment rights that guarantee freedom to practice one's religion. Because of these conflicts, the legal status of peyote use by Native Americans has changed several times since it first became an issue during the American Civil War era.

Religious Rights and Mescaline Regulations

New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the use of peyote, doing so in the 1920s. This law was changed in 1959 to allow Native Americans to use the substance during their religious ceremonies. Most states had no laws against peyote use or possession even into the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, dried buttons from the peyote cactus were available for purchase through mail-order catalogs. This sort of free marketing of the psychoactive cacti and their components slowed drastically after peyote was declared illegal throughout the United States in 1967. This decision was strengthened by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970. The passage of the act identified peyote as a Schedule I hallucinogen. At that point, buying, selling, or using it became a serious crime for anyone except a member of the NAC participating in a legitimate religious ceremony. Even members of the NAC could be held accountable to the law for using peyote in any other setting or distributing it to people outside the church.

Peyote Law in Individual States

The role of peyote in the ancient religions of Native Americans makes for a confusing legal situation in modern times. Federal law allows the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies, but each state government has documented its own interpretation of the law. In Oregon and Arizona, the law exempts use with "sincere religious intent." Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Mexico require that users must be "members of a bona fide religious organization" in order to be exempt. Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming require that users be members of the NAC. Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin state that the peyote must be used "only within an NAC ceremony." Idaho and Texas require that in addition to NAC membership, users must be of Native American descent. In Kansas, the law adds that prisoners are not protected by the exemption, even if they are members of the NAC.

Texas requires people to be at least 25 percent Native American. This situation raises various issues, including the fact that some tribes are not recognized officially by both state and federal authorities. Also, there is a controversy about what percentage of Native American ancestry should be required or if any should be required at all. Such issues remind people of the so-called Jim Crow laws, now struck down, that once determined who was considered to be African American and who was not.

Another controversial issue is whether a non-native person can become a member of the NAC church. Some chapters of the NAC allow non-Native Americans to join, while others do not. Non-Native Americans who join the NAC are not protected from federal law even if state laws would allow them exemption. Both state and federal laws on this topic continue to be challenged, reconsidered, and changed. Cases involving the law and its exemptions often go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was adopted. It was intended to protect the religious traditions of Native Americans. However, almost from the start, there were many challenges to it. In 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Employment Division v. Smith. Ultimately, the court ruled that religious use of peyote by Native Americans was not protected by the First Amendment. Many religious groups and civil liberties activists protested this decision.

Eventually, the ruling was contradicted by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments (AIRFA). AIRFA, which was amended again in 1996, protected the rights of American Indians to use peyote in traditional, ceremonial ways in all of the fifty states. It states that the "use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any State."

In Texas, where the peyote cactus grows, the state government supervises its cultivation and hires a crew of experienced people, called peyoteros, to properly harvest, dry, and distribute the buttons to Native American churches. Many complex questions have come up about this conflict between enforcing drug laws and protecting freedom of religion. The various states continue to try to sort out these complexities, as they make their own laws and decisions about the transportation, possession, and use of peyote.

Penalties for Nonreligious Use

Aside from the exemptions made for members of the NAC, possession of peyote, mescaline, or any other Schedule I substance can result in a prison sentence ranging from one to twenty years, and fines ranging between one thousand to several thousand dollars. Selling peyote or mescaline, or possessing with the intent to sell, can result in fines ranging from $250,000 to several million dollars and prison sentences ranging from five years to life, depending on the circumstances. In Mexico, peyote is illegal even for use in religious ceremonies. In Canada, peyote and mescaline are restricted, and possession or use may lead to prison sentences of up to three years and fines of up to $4,000. Penalties for trafficking the drug are even more severe. The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances declared an international ban on mescaline.

For More Information


Anderson, Edward F. Peyote: The Divine Cactus. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Schaefer, Stacy B., and Peter T. Furst, eds. People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Schultes, Richard Evans. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2001.


"A Field Full of Buttons." Economist (April 1, 1999).

Halpern, John H. "Hallucinogens and Dissociative Agents Naturally Growing in the United States." Pharmacology & Therapeutics 102 (2004): pp. 131-138.

Nelson, Nick. "Medicine Man May Still Face Battle to Get Peyote Back." Daily Herald (May 6, 2005).

Nelson, Nick. "Mooneys Arrested for Distribution, Possession of Peyote." Daily Herald (June 24, 2005).

Nelson, Nick. "Mooney's Wife Released in Federal Peyote Case." Daily Herald (June 29, 2005).

O'Reilly, David. "Interview with Huston Smith." Philadelphia Inquirer (June 18, 2000).

Web Sites

"2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Applied Studies. (accessed July 27, 2005).

"American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994." The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. (accessed July 31, 2005).

"Church's Peyote Use OK'd: High Court Ruling May Clear Founder of Charges." Deseret News, June 23, 2004.,1249,595072326,00.html (accessed July 27, 2005).

"National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Report Series: Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs." National Institute on Drug Abuse. (accessed June 27, 2005).

"Peyote." Partnership for a Drug-Free America. (accessed June 27, 2005).

"Peyote & Mescaline." U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). (accessed June 27, 2005).

See also: 2C-B (Nexus); Benzylpiperazine/Trifluoro-methyl-phenylpiperazine; Designer Drugs; Dimethyltryptamine (DMT); Ecstasy (MDMA); Ketamine; LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide); PCP (Phencyclidine); Psilocybin


views updated May 21 2018


OFFICIAL NAMES: Mescaline, peyote

STREET NAMES: Buttons, cactus buttons, cactus head, Aztec, chief, big chief, mesc, mescal, mezc, moon, topi, blue cap

DRUG CLASSIFICATIONS: Schedule I, hallucinogen


Mescaline is said to be the oldest known hallucinogenic drug. Before drugs were manufactured in a lab, cooked up in someone's basement, or stolen from a medicine cabinet for illegal and abusive use, they were found in plants. Often, drugs in plants were discovered quite accidentally.

Foraging for food, early humans used trial and error to determine which plants were edible and, unfortunately, which were deadly. However, some plants that were neither food nor poison had another entirely surprising effect. These plants produced an intoxicated, or drunken, state or caused the user to have visions or hear voices of people who were not there. To the ancients, these waking dreams (which are called hallucinations—distortions of perception that seem real but are not) were voices from their gods or the spirit world.

Such plants—now classified as psychoactive or hallucinogenic—became a centerpiece for sacred rituals, a means to explain the unexplainable, and a mainstay of medicine bags. How a primitive people or another culture might use a drug as part of their worship rituals differs greatly from its use as a recreational or street drug where very often it is misused and abused.

Mescaline (peyote) is one such drug that has a cultural history dating from before the time of Christ as well as a separate history as a street drug. It is derived mainly from two members of the Cactaceae family—the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi).

L. williamsii is a gray-green or blue-green cactus that grows close to the ground. It looks like a small, segmented cushion. These cushion-like segments are called podarea and they surround a wooly center of tufted hairs called trichomes. L. williamsii does not have prickly spines as do other cacti. (Other genus and species names of the peyote cactus are Lophophora echinata var. diffusa and Echinocactus williamsii.) The peyote cactus is indigenous (grows naturally) to the area ranging from southern Texas to San Luis Potosi in southern Mexico. Another Lophophora species is Lophophora difusa. This yellow-green cactus is fleshier, without a well-defined podarea. It grows only in the dry, central area of Queretaro, Mexico.

The San Pedro cactus (T. pachanoi), unlike L. williamsii, has spines and grows in a large column, sometimes as high as 20 ft (12.5 m). This common cactus is often used as an ornamental plant, and originated in the mountains of Ecuador and Peru. Other cacti of the Trichocereus family also contain hallucinogenic compounds. The San Pedro cactus is also known as Echinopsis pachanoi, Cereus pachanoi, Cereus rosei, Echinopsis peruvianus, and T. peruvianus.

The derivation of the name peyote is uncertain. The Nahuatl word, pi-youtl, means "silk cocoon" or "caterpillar cocoon," due to the plant's appearance. The Mexican word, piule, has a more simple meaning of "hallucinogenic plant." Both are generally regarded as its possible predecessor.

Today though, in academic literature as well as street usage, the drug is referred to as both mescaline and peyote (regardless from which cactus it is actually extracted), often with both words having the same meaning. However, in the strictest sense, mescaline refers to the hallucinogenic crystalline extract of the peyote cactus, a form that is rare.

Mescaline is one of 40–60 alkaloids (nitrogen-containing organic compounds) that are found in these psychoactive cacti. Depending on its maturity, the typical peyote cactus has about a 4% mescaline content. Extremely slow growing, a cactus can take more than four years to grow a dime-sized top section, or "button," the part that is cut off and eaten. A plant is not considered mature until it is 13 years old. A cactus that is the size of a baseball is estimated to be about 30 years old. Native American and Mexican Indians call these plants "Father or Grandfather Peyote," and they are highly revered.


Found only in the New World, there is evidence that peyote was used before the time of Christ. Some of the most solid archeological data suggest that the drug was taken by the Aztecs 3,000 years ago. An archeological find in Coahuila, Mexico, of a skeleton with a beaded necklace of dried peyote buttons is 1,000 years old. In Peru, a carving of a San Pedro cactus on a stone tablet dates back to 1300 b.c. Dried peyote buttons found in the Shumla Cave in Texas are said to date from 5000 b.c.

The writings of Fray Bernardino Sahagun (1499–1590), a Spanish missionary who lived with and studied the Indians of Mexico, provide the earliest documented information about peyote. He writes that the Chichimecas and the Toltec Indians probably used peyote as early as 300 b.c.

Dr. Francisco Hernandez, King Philip II's personal physician, gave the first physical description of the cactus plant. Along with describing its psychoactive qualities, he also wrote about its medicinal uses, namely, to relive painful joints.

However, the newcomers to the New World were not accepting of the well-established peyote cults. Campaigns were quickly undertaken to make peyote illegal. When Mexico outlawed it in 1720, the ritual was so entrenched that the practice continued in secret. In fact, the Huichol Indians of Mexico still perform a peyote ritual that is probably very similar to that performed in the days before colonization.

In the same century, there is evidence of peyote use in the United States. The first recorded use of peyote is1760. By the time of the Civil War (1860–1864), Native Americans were familiar with the plant and had a strong ritual surrounding its use. It was about 1880 that the peyote ceremony of the Kiowa and Comanche tribes first drew public attention. These Plains Indian tribes incorporated aspects of the Mexican peyote worship into their vision-quest ritual. The Plains Indians probably learned about the hallucinogenic cactus when they crossed the border into northern Mexico during various raids on the Mescalero Indians.

Experts suggest that the peyote ritual was embraced by the Native Americans because they saw it as a way to preserve their cultural heritage at a time when their way of life was slipping away. It was during this time that they were relocated to reservations. Tribal missionaries spread word of the beneficial effects of the peyote ritual on moral. In 1918, the Native American Church (NAC) was founded and further formalized the ritual use of peyote. It also set off a long history of debate over First Amendment rights and the use of a controlled substance by members of a church. In 1920, the church had more than 13,000 members comprising 30 tribes. By 2002, there were more than 250,000 members.

But there is another side to peyote—its use as a recreational or street drug. In 1897, Arthur Heffter, a German chemist, was the first to identify mescaline as the chemical responsible for peyote's hallucinogenic effects. It was the first hallucinogenic compound synthesized. At the time, the science community wanted to know what chemical would cause hallucinations in otherwise normal individuals who were not suffering from a psychosis or brain disorder.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hallucinogenic substances were viewed as possible tools for understanding and treating psychiatric and other mental disorders. Tribal medicine men, or shamans, have always maintained it was an effective medicine to treat a number of ailments including alcoholism. However, peyote did not really catch on as a drug to be explored in the recreational arena until 1953 when the English novelist Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) wrote The Doors of Perception where he recounted his experiences with the peyote.

In the 1960s and 1970s, serious research involving mescaline and LSD continued and it was hoped that their use in psychotherapy would be established. Timothy Leary (1920–96), a Harvard professor best known for his lifelong experiments with LSD, also studied mescaline. He is best known for giving the motto "Turn on, tune in, and drop out," to the hippie generation of the 1960s.

As academic interest in psychedelics flourished, street use became common, especially on college campuses. Opponents of psychedelic research said it failed to show that it had a viable use in psychotherapy, and growing street use demonstrated that the drugs had the potential for abuse and were dangerous. Users began reporting that some of their "trips," as the experience under the influence of the drug is called, were bad trips, causing them and the medical community concern. Flashbacks—recurrences of the trip even without the drug—were also reported. Organizations such as the National Clearinghouse or Alcohol and Drug Information cautions that using hallucinogens, including mescaline, in large quantities may cause convulsions, blood vessel damage in the brain, or even irreversible brain damage.

In 1929, New Mexico was the first state to outlaw peyote, and in 1967 the federal government banned it all together. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act made peyote, mescaline, and every other hallucinogen a Schedule I drug, defined as having no known medical use. Money for research dried up and the tide turned against hallucinogens' popularity as a street drug. Street use of peyote and mescaline was virtually nonexistent at the close of the twentieth century.

The federal government exempted the NAC from the ban on peyote if it is used as part of a bona fide religious ceremony. This point remains a center of legal controversy in states that want to limit its use or outlaw it completely.


Of the alkaloids so far identified in just L. williamsii alone, 15 are Beta-phenethylamine and simple isoquinoline alkaloids. Mescaline, N-methylmescaline, N-acetylemescaline, anhalamine, anhalonine, anhalidine, anhalinine, anhalonidine, lophophorine, O-methylanhalondedine, and pellotine have all been identified as the principal components of the plant. However, only mescaline has so far been determined to cause hallucinations.

Mescaline is chemically classified as a phenethylamine. Some of its identified chemical compounds are 3,4,5–trimethoxy-beta-phenethylamine, 3,4,5–trimeth-oxybenzeneethanamine, 3,4,5–trimethoxyphene-thylamine, and mescaline. This chemical classification makes the drug different from the other hallucinogens, specifically the more popular LSD, which is classified as an indole. Its chemical formula is C11H17NO3.

Some designer drugs are mescaline analogs, meaning they are similar in chemical structure. The most popular mescaline analog is 3,4–methylenediozy-methamphetamine (MDMA or Ecstasy). Other analogs of mescaline include amphetamines and methamphetamines.


Dried peyote cactus buttons are chewed and swallowed or made into a powder and swallowed in tablet form. Peyote can also be brewed and drunk as a tea.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the usual dose of mescaline that will produce hallucinations is about 0.3–0.5 g, which is the equivalent of about 5 g of dried peyote. The effect of the drug lasts about 12 hours. Mescaline can be extracted from peyote or produced synthetically.

Synthetic mescaline, however, is extremely rare. It is very expensive to produce and is therefore not in demand on the underground drug market. It takes about a half-gram of mescaline sulfate to produce a psychedelic trip. Synthetic mescaline is pricey at about $100 to $200 per gram.

Dried peyote buttons ground into a powdered form and made into tablets can be dangerous as the tablets can be adulterated, or mixed with other substances or drugs. In the United States, it has been reported that street samples of what are believed to be pure synthetic mescaline often have another substance added.

In Canada, Health Canada Online reports that 90% of what is supposed to be mescaline is actually phencyclidine (PCP), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), or another drug or substance. This can be dangerous

because some of these drugs can be much more harmful than mescaline or peyote. For instance, PCP or "Angel Dust" may cause severe paranoia or even convulsions and coma. These sorts of side effects are not usually associated with mescaline alone.


There is no recognized therapeutic use for peyote or mescaline. However, interest in mescaline as a medicine appeared almost as soon as it was discovered. A look through bibliographic citations and literature shows publications on peyote or mescaline dating from 1894 through nearly every decade to present day.

In the 1960s, interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelics was at its height. The experimental psychiatric community and others were looking at mescaline and other hallucinogens as possible ways to treat a wide array of psychiatric disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior and autism. Once the drugs became illegal, legitimate study for all intents and purposes was halted. However, personal exploration and research continued illegally in some sectors.

In the 1990s there was a resurgence in interest in studying the effects of peyote, especially among the Native American population who have used it for so long. Testimony before the Congress of the United States and elsewhere that the use of peyote in the spiritual practices of the NAC has helped Native Americans combat the problems of alcoholism and that it appears relatively safe has revived the interest of the research community.

Outside of clinical research, use of peyote as a means to self-discovery is of great interest to both members of the NAC and lay people alike. A group in the San Francisco Bay area, the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), refers to peyote and other hallucinogenic plants as "entheogens" instead of hallucinogens. Entheogen comes from a Greek base meaning "God-facilitating substance."

Those who seek what they call a responsible religious use of entheogens are also trying to answer the questions about their inherent dangers. Researchers at Duke University are studying the PET scans of mescaline users to see what happens during spiritual use.


It is extremely difficult to determine the extent of peyote and mescaline use. After 1998, it seemed to disappear from the various governmental indicators for drug use. If it shows up at all, it is usually lumped under the heading of "other hallucinogens," not including LSD, which usually has its own category.

According to the DEA, as of October 2001, of the approximate 14 million Americans over age 12 who used illicit drugs, 22.3% used LSD. There is no mention of mescaline use in that survey.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA) Director's Report to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse in September 2000, did list mescaline use as being "common among adolescents and young adults in Boston. Peyote is readily available in Phoenix." However, there was no indication how many people this might involve or their ages or usage trends.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) suggests that local DEA offices may have statistical breakdowns for mescaline and peyote use separate from other hallucinogens and LSD.

Scope and severity

Mescaline is not a very popular street drug as exemplified by a DEA report that shows that from 1980 to 1987, 19.4 lbs (9 kg) of peyote were confiscated in drug raids compared to more than 15 million lbs (7 million kg) of marijuana confiscated during the same time period. They report no trafficking of peyote.

In Texas, where the peyote cactus grows, its distribution to members of the NAC throughout the United States is controlled by Texas laws and regulations.

Age, ethnic, and gender trends

Again, there is no breakdown for mescaline use. A few interesting statistics from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) show that about one-third of college campuses reported an increase in hallucinogen use in the mid-1990s—mostly LSD and psilocybin. According to the NIJ, "Campus sources identified hallucinogen users today as mainstream students, not the more marginal hippie students of the 1960s. Private and public campuses are equally likely to report hallucinogen use; religious schools are most likely to report little or no use. Larger campuses and institutions in urban areas report the widest range of drug use."

While use of hallucinogens appeared to increase during the early to mid-1990s, possibly due to the growth of "raves," NIDA reported a slight decline in their use among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders from 1998 to 2000.


Most of what is known about the effects of hallucinogens is known from the widespread use and study of LSD during the 1960s and 1970s. According to NIDA, LSD is the most widely used drug of all the psychedelics and its affects are seen as typical of all drugs in this class. The way LSD works applies to other hallucinogens such as mescaline, psilocybin, and ibogaine.

Hallucinogens chemically affect the user's brain. Psychedelic drugs like mescaline have an emotional and sensory impact on the user. The user experiences rapid mood swings—feeling happy one minute and instantly fearful and paranoid in the next. This emotional up and down can be so rapid that the user may experience several emotions at the same time or in rapid-fire fashion one after the other.

Users report a heightened awareness and intensity of color, sound, smells, and taste. Sometimes these sensations can appear mixed up and users report "hearing colors" or "seeing sounds." This blending of the sensual experience is a neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia.

The psychedelic drug-induced state of an hallucinogen is called a "trip." Trips can be good or bad. Many people say that under the influence of a hallucinogen, they feel very happy and interpret the experience as men tally stimulating or even enlightening in a spiritual sense. Some people say the experience helps them to better understand themselves, which is why throughout history the interest in using psychedelics as a therapeutic aid waxes and wanes in clinical interest.

However, the bad trips can be as equally terrifying as the good trips are stimulating. When a person has a bad trip, the individual often compares it to the most frightening nightmare. Often, those having a bad trip will be anxious, feel they are going insane, experience profound depression, and think they may be dying. Bad trips are also accompanied by a feeling of being out of control.


Most people who take peyote report that their first reaction is to the taste; the buttons taste bad. Sometimes, the initial effects of eating them are nausea and vomiting, especially if many buttons are consumed. Some people report taking as many as 30 at a time. If taken in tablet form, more of the drug might be ingested at once and all of the drug's effects, good and bad, could be heightened.

About 30 minutes to over an hour after the buttons are eaten the drug's effects are felt. While the hallucinations may be two hours long, the drug's concentration in the brain and its other effects might last 10 to 12 hours.

As a result of the initial symptoms, it is rare for users to overdose on mescaline. However, this does not mean that mescaline is without other potentially dangerous physical effects. Mescaline can cause dilated pupils, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, dizziness, loss of appetite, dry mouth, sweating, numbness, anxiety, sleeplessness, uterine contractions, nausea, and tremors.

According to NIDA's Research Report Series on Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs, most likely the drug works by disrupting the interaction of nerve cells and the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin helps to regulate the areas in the brain that control behavior, perception, and the systems of the body that regulate such functions as hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, muscle control, and the senses.

Not much is known about hallucinogens in general and mescaline in particular. While much of the research has pointed to the close ties with serotonin, others are now looking at the similarity between mescaline and amphetamine, with which it shares an even closer similar structure. This is especially evident in the mescaline analogs such as ecstasy, which has an extreme amphetamine-like effect on users. Amphetamines affect the adrenal system.

Harmful side effects

Because of peyote's bad taste, overdoses are rare. However, some of the drug's side effects such as nausea, sweating, and tremors are experienced when doses of 300–500 mg are taken. Other adverse side effects may include slowing heartbeat and breathing, and contractions of the intestines and the uterus, which could be dangerous for pregnant women taking the drug.

Another concern is the user's mental state. If a psychological disorder is already present, the user's condition could be worsened. Some people, even those without existing psychoses, report panic reactions when taking the drug.

Unlike other drugs, when a frequent user stops taking mescaline, there are no withdrawal symptoms. In other words, peyote does not cause an addiction, or physical dependence on a drug. However, while using mescaline, a tolerance to psychedelics in general will develop, meaning it will take a larger dose for the user to get the same effects. This tolerance carries over if the user switches to other psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin, but does not last if mescaline use is discontinued.

Purity of the drug is always a concern. If mescaline is taken in its dried button form, users are fairly assured it is the real thing. In tablet form, there is always the possibility of adulteration. Possible harmful side effects from the unknown drug or additive always pose a danger.

Long-term health effects

Mescaline is not considered addictive the way drugs such as heroin or methamphetamines are. Nevertheless, this does not mean it is without possible health consequences. When the drug is discontinued, and there is a dip in serotonin activity, a condition called dysphoria may result. Dysphoria is an overall feeling of anxiety, depression, restlessness, and general dissatisfaction, for which fluoxetine (Prozac) is sometimes prescribed for three to six months.

Psychedelic use can carry with it two long-term mental health problems that can be quite disturbing. These conditions are hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD), also known as flashbacks. HPPD may persist for years, long after a person stops taking mescaline. According the NIDA, "these episodes are spontaneous, repeated, sometimes continuous recurrences of some of the sensory distortions originally produced by LSD." This holds true for mescaline, the organization says, as well as other hallucinogens.

Another long-term health effect of psychedelic use is persistent or drug-induced psychosis, in which former users can fall into a "long-lasting psychotic-like state." They can appear severely depressed, have mood swings, and have hallucinations and visual disturbances. Like HPPD, persistent psychosis can last for years. Often it occurs in people who have no previous history of psychological problems.


Often drug users combine drugs. "Love flipping," or "love trip," is the practice of taking mescaline at the same time as ecstasy. Because MDMA is a mescaline analog, and given the dangerous side effects known about MDMA, the addition of mescaline might further increase the overall harmful side effects of both drugs.


While there is no formal treatment for HPPD and drug-induced psychosis, those who have trouble coping with the symptoms are often treated with antidepressants to help reduce the symptoms. Former users who experience flashbacks are often fearful and confused by the inexplicable hallucinations, and it is reported that they think they may have suffered brain damage or are going insane. Psychotherapy may help them cope.


Because mescaline is so closely tied to its psychological effects, it can have profound effects on the user. The side effects of anxiety and depression after taking it can make social functioning difficult; flashbacks and drug-induced psychosis may require long-term care and can affect job performance and personal relationships. People with existing psychological problems might have them worsened. Functioning while under the influence of mescaline can lead to poor judgment or dangerous acts that could hurt the user or others.


The DEA defines peyote as a Schedule I, hallucinogen, meaning that it has a "high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substances under medical supervision."

Use of peyote or mescaline carries the same fines and punishments as any other Schedule I substance, which can include imprisonment. NAC members who use peyote outside the religious ceremony are not exempt from the consequences for illegal use. The federal guidelines refer specifically to the peyote cactus, L. williamsii. However, any other psychoactive cactus bought and used with the express intent of extracting the mescaline content will carry the same consequences under the law as using the more common form of the peyote cactus.

Traveling to other countries where peyote might be grown could result in legal consequences. Buying, selling, carrying, or using drugs, including mescaline, outside of the United States can result in interrogation and imprisonment for weeks, months, or life. Each country has its own legal guidelines and punishments for drug use and trafficking. Some countries make no distinctions for a person who has a small quantity of peyote for personal use; such a person could be tried with the same consequences as a full-fledged trafficker. Countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey use the death penalty for even the most minor drug offense.

Legal history

The legal history surrounding peyote use is ambivalent. On one hand, there is the straightforward ban on street usage and its consequences as a Schedule I, hallucinogen. On the other hand, there is the problematic usage by the federally recognized religion of the Native American Church that pits federal drug laws against First Amendment rights.

The legality-illegality considerations of peyote use by Native Americans has been on-again, off-again since the Civil War years. In 1920, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw its use. In 1959, the law was amended to allow Native Americans to use it during religious ceremonies.

In the 1950s and 1960s, peyote was legal throughout most of the United States. During the peak of the psychedelic era, dried peyote cactus buttons were readily available through mail-order catalogues.

When the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (Public Law 91-513) made mescaline and peyote a Schedule I, hallucinogen, the free-flowing use of the cactus as a street drug slowed dramatically.

The law did allow an exemption for members of the NAC.

Nevertheless, states interpreted the law in their own way. A religion that used a controlled substance in its ceremony caused a lot of debate among lawyers and civil libertarians alike. It was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which provides for the right to worship without interference from federal or state governments, versus a church's right to use an illegal substance as part of its ceremony.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, adopted August 1978, protected the religious traditions of Native Americans, but this law was challenged almost from its inception.

The 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith said that the religious use of peyote by Native Americans is not protected by the First Amendment. This decision was met with the outcry of many religious and civil liberties groups, which led to two legislative acts: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments (AIRFA). Amended again in 1996, AIRFA allowed for the same protection for the traditional, ceremonial use of peyote by American Indians in all 50 states.

The law allows for the "use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any State." The law also protects peyoteros, those who harvest peyote.

Discretion, though, is left to the states to decide if the transportation, possession, or use of peyote is harmful to anyone and therefore allows states to make their own laws regulating use.

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

Using, possessing, manufacturing, or distributing peyote could result in a prison sentence of not more than 15 years, a fine of not more than $25,000, or both.

In Canada, mescaline or peyote is a restricted drug, regulated by the Food and Drugs Act (FDA). A first offense is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Subsequent offenses are punishable by one year and up to $2,000; if convicted by indictment, individuals may be fined up to $4,000 and earn three years in jail. Penalties for trafficking and/or possession for the purpose of trafficking are punishable by up to 18 months in jail for summary conviction, and up to 10 years upon conviction by indictment.

See also Ecstasy (MDMA); LSD; PCP (phencyclidine); Psilocybin



Anderson, Edward F. "Botany of Peyote." In Peyote, The Divine Cactus. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. London: Chatto & Windus, 1954.

Jesse, Robert. "Testimony of the Council on Spiritual Practices." In Entheogeons and the Future of Religion. San Francisco: Council on Spiritual Practices, 1997.

Schultes, Richard Evans, and Albert Hoffmann. "The Tracks of the Little Deer." In Plants of the Gods—Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucenogenic Powers. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press,1992.

Turner, D. M. The Essential Pyschedelic Guide. Ohio: Panther Press, 1994.


Patchelder, Tim. "Drug Addictions, Hallucinogens, and Shamanisms: The View from Anthropology." Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients (July 2001).


Bierma, Paige. "Hallucinogens (Psychedelics)." Health Topics A-Z. February 1, 2001 (July 8, 2002).;$sessionid$V3JQT1QAAABZFWCYSYTDEMQ#2.

Council on Spiritual Practices. <>.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. <>.

U.S. Department of Justice. Drug Enforcement Administration. <>.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Drug Abuse. <>.


National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health, 6001 Executive Blvd., Bethesda, MD, USA, 20892-9561,(301) 443-1124, (888) 644-6432.

Candace A. Hoffmann


views updated Jun 08 2018

mes·ca·line / ˈmeskəlin; -ˌlēn/ • n. a hallucinogenic and intoxicating compound, (CH3O)3C6H2CH2CH2NH2, present in mescal buttons from the peyote cactus.


views updated May 14 2018

mescaline Psychedelic drug obtained from the dried tops of the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii. In North America, mescaline is used in some Native American religious rites.


views updated May 29 2018

mescaline (mesk-ă-leen) n. an alkaloid present in the dried tops of the cactus Lophophora williamsii that produces inebriation and hallucinations when ingested.