What to Know About Peyote Use

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) cactus

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Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small, spineless cactus that is found in the southwest United States and northern Mexico. The plant has been used for thousands of years by native tribes for religious and healing purposes. Peyote's principal active ingredient is mescaline, a psychedelic compound that can also be man-made through chemical synthesis.

The peyote buttons that are found on the cactus plants are usually dried and then chewed or made into a liquid for consumption. They can also be ground into a powder used in capsules or smoked with tobacco or cannabis.

As a Schedule I substance, peyote is considered an illegal and addictive drug. However, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1994 gives Native Americans the legal right to use peyote for their religious services. This exemption has been an ongoing and contentious issue for many years, although case law has determined that even members of the Native American Church who do not have Native American ancestry can legally use peyote in this context.

Also Known As: Peyote is also known as buttons, cactus, mesc, peyoto, aztec, blue cap, broken, and dead.

Drug Class: Peyote is classified as a hallucinogen.

Common Side Effects: Peyote is known to cause nausea and vomiting, increased body temperature, hallucinations, altered perceptions of space and time, impaired motor coordination, euphoria, and anxiety.

How to Recognize Peyote

Peyote buttons (the “crown” or top of the peyote cactus) look like disc-shaped buttons. They can be fresh or dried and users can chew them or soak them in water to make an intoxicating liquid. Since peyote has a bitter taste, it is also ground into an off-white powder that is placed inside a capsule to be swallowed or sprinkled into a cigarette or marijuana joint to be smoked.

What Does Peyote Do?

Peyote is a hallucinogen, meaning it can cause profound distortions in a person's perceptions of reality (known as hallucinations), including seeing, hearing, and feeling things that seem real but are not. Hallucinogens are thought to affect neural circuits in the brain involving the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a role in mood, sensory perception, sleep, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, and muscle control.

The effects of peyote, which can range from a deeply mystical transcendental state to a “bad trip” and dysphoric symptoms, depending on the potency and amount ingested as well as the user’s expectations, mood, surroundings, and mental health history. Many describe the high as dream-like.

The effects are often intensified when the drug is combined with substances like alcohol or stimulants.

A mere 30 minutes after ingesting peyote, people can begin to experience physical discomfort (including nausea, sweating, and chills) that can last up to two hours.

The hallucinogenic effects typically peak after two to four hours after ingestion, and gradually decline over the next eight to 12 hours.

Some users compare these peaks to LSD trips in that they profoundly alter perceptions of self and reality and can intensify emotions. The effects are also similar to other hallucinogens like psilocybin (the hallucinogen in magic mushrooms) and PCP.

What the Experts Say

According to a 2014 study on the prevalence of peyote use in Native Americans, there was a fairly large surge in the number of Native Americans who used peyote for roughly four years afterward the AIRFA passed. Researchers believe the increase in use was likely due to more people admitting to using peyote once it was legal. Since that time, the number leveled to just under 10%.

Peyote use in the rest of the U.S. population is between 1% to 2%, although most data sources that quantify drug use exclude peyote, so It is hard to gauge the scope of the use. 

Though peyote can certainly cause negative effects such as those mentioned above, the little research that has been done indicates that ingesting peyote doesn't appear to be life-threatening and most adverse effects go away in time.

The mescaline in peyote, however, is known to be potentially harmful to developing fetuses, so if you're pregnant or think you're pregnant, you should not use peyote.

Off-Label or Recently Approved Uses

Peyote has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years in religious ceremonies and for the treatment of various physical ailments.

The use of peyote is illegal in the United States and classified as a Schedule 1 controlled drug, although there remains an exception for members of the Native American Church who, when assisted by a Roadman (similar to a priest or minister) use the drug to facilitate communication with the Creator.

Peyote and other hallucinogens have also been studied as a possible treatment for a variety of mental health conditions including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and dementia, which are all associated with perceptual distortions.

Common Side Effects

The amount of mescaline needed to produce hallucinations is very small—usually 0.3 to 0.5 grams. The effects can last up to 12 hours, but this depends on your size, metabolism, and how much you ingest.

The physical effects of peyote tend to be similar to those of LSD and include:

  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased heart rate
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Weakness
  • Profound sweating
  • Severe nausea and vomiting
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Numbness
  • Appetite loss
  • Flushing
  • Difficulty sleeping

Mental effects that can occur include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Euphoria
  • Altered sense of time (i.e., it passes slowly or quickly)
  • Altered awareness
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • A sense of relaxation
  • Altered feelings and perceptions

According to the National Institute on Drug Use, there isn't much known about the long-term effects of the majority of hallucinogens, including peyote. However, it is known that repeated or long-term use of hallucinogens can cause the following effects:

  • Persistent psychosis: Though this condition is rare, symptoms include visual disturbances and scattered thinking, as well as periods of paranoia or mood disturbances.
  • Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD): Rarely, will use of peyote and other hallucinogens such as LSD may contribute to the development of HPPD, which is when you develop flashbacks of hallucinations and visual disturbances that don't go away and may even begin to interfere with your daily tasks of living. These symptoms can be mistaken for neurological disorders such as a stroke or a brain tumor.

Though both persistent psychosis and HPPD are rare among people who use peyote, they can occur without warning and have been reported even after a single exposure to peyote. Generally, these symptoms occur in people with a history of psychiatric problems.

Signs of Use

According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, if a loved one is using peyote, there will be some telltale signs, including:

  • Flushed skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Sleep problems
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Sensory confusion (such as “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors)
  • Disordered thinking or detachment from reality

When to Seek Help

If you feel physically ill or mentally out of control, call 911 or ask a trusted friend (preferably someone who is not intoxicated) to go with you to the nearest emergency room. The ER staff is not looking to get you in trouble but to keep you safe and help you get the best treatment for your current state.

Myths & Common Questions

Peyote is often considered a safe drug due to its presence in nature and long history of use in religious ceremonies, but peyote use is not without its negative effects.

There is also often confusion about peyote's legal status under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which ensured that native people can exercise their traditional religious ceremonies, including those that incorporate peyote use. While legitimate religious use is permitted under the law, the recreational use of peyote is illegal in the United States.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Like all other hallucinogens, peyote may be addictive. This is partly because it is possible to build tolerance, requiring the use of more and more peyote to achieve the same effects. Peyote tolerance can build quickly with regular use and in as few as three to six days.

How Long Does Peyote Stay in Your System?

Peyote can be detected in the human body for as few as two days and for up to three months. The length of time that peyote stays in your system depends on individual factors, such as your metabolism, body mass, age, hydration level, physical activity, and health conditions.

Due to all of these factors, there isn't a definite period of time that peyote can remain in your body. However, there is an estimated range of times during which peyote can be found with certain tests, including:

  • Urine: 2 to 3 days
  • Blood: Up to 24 hours
  • Saliva: 1 to 10 days
  • Hair follicle: Up to 90 days

Screening for peyote use isn't included in routine drug tests, so mescaline must be tested for specifically.

Addiction

Peyote does not appear to be addictive, but further research is needed to determine if addiction is possible.

Some general signs of addiction to watch for:

  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the trip
  • Using peyote, despite any consequences or negative effects
  • Taking higher doses than necessary for a greater high
  • Tolerance, or needing more of the drug to get the effects experienced the first time

Withdrawal

While more research is needed to determine the specific withdrawal symptoms linked to peyote, the drug has been known to cause psychological symptoms of withdrawal, such as depression or dysphoria.

How to Get Help

If you or someone you love is showing signs of peyote misuse, or any other type of illicit substance, it's important to know that help is available. While there's no specific treatment for peyote addiction, there are evidence-based addiction treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), support groups, life skills training, and relapse prevention that may be a good fit.

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