Peyote: Myths, Effects, Risks, and Getting Help

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), Cactaceae.

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Peyote is a small cactus that is found in the southwest United States and northern Mexico and has been used for thousands of years by native tribes in these areas 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 that's put into capsules and swallowed or that's 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.

Peyote is also known as peyote buttons, cactus, mesc, peyoto, aztec, blue cap, broken, and dead.

How to Recognize Peyote

Peyote buttons (the “crown” or top of the peyote cactus) look like disc-shaped buttons that are cut off and contain mescaline. They can be fresh or dried and users can chew them or soak them in water to make an intoxicating liquid. Since mescaline 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. Mescaline can also be made through chemical synthesis.

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

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

The hallucinogen 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 intensify emotions. The effects are also similar to other hallucinogens like psilocybin (mushrooms) and PCP.

Peyote can be detected in the human body for as few as two days and for up to three months. 

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 excessive swell 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 percent.

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

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

Mescaline in peyote 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

Mescaline 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 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.
  • Flashbacks: Having flashbacks of your experiences while under the influence of peyote can occur completely unexpectedly several days and up to a year after the drug use has stopped, depending on the individual.
  • Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD): Rarely, repeated 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 peyote users, 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:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Sleep problems
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Sensory confusion ( “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.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Like all other hallucinogens, peyote may be addictive. This is partly because it is possible to build tolerance, requiring the user to use more and more mescaline to achieve the same effects.

How Long Does Peyote Stay in Your System?

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 after use
  • Hair: up to 90 days

Peyote and mescaline aren't included in routine drug tests, so they have to be tested for specifically.

Addiction

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 an addiction to peyote, 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 (cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, life skills training, relapse prevention) that may be a good fit.

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