What to Know About Peyote Use

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) cactus

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Peyote (Lophophora williamsii or Lophophora diffusa) is a small, spineless cactus that is found in the southwest United States, northern Mexico, and Peru. The plant has been used for about six thousand 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.

Peyote buttons (protrusions found on the tops of the cactus plants) are usually dried and then chewed. They can also be soaked and consumed as a liquid (such as tea), ground into a powder that can be taken in capsules, or smoked with tobacco or cannabis.

As a Schedule I substance, peyote is considered an illegal and addictive drug in the United States. However, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) Amendments of 1994 gives Native Americans the legal right to use peyote for their religious services.

The exemption has been an ongoing and contentious issue for 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, blue cap, broken, bad seed, britton, hikori, hikuli, half moon, hyatari, P, nubs, seni, and tops

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. 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) will depend on the potency and amount that is ingested, as well as the user’s expectations, mood, surroundings, and mental health history. Many users describe the high as dream-like.

The effects are often intensified when the drug is combined with substances like alcohol or stimulants, which can potentially harm a person's mental health.

Users can begin to experience the drug's effects (as well as physical discomfort, including nausea, sweating, and chills) within 30 minutes of ingesting peyote. The effects can last up to two hours before reaching a peak.

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

Some users compare the peaks to LSD trips. They may profoundly alter perceptions of self and reality, as well as 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, a fairly large surge in the number of Native Americans who used peyote was seen for roughly four years after the AIRFA passed.

However, researchers believe that the noted increase was likely due to more people admitting to using peyote once it was legal. Since that time, the number has leveled to just under 10%.

Peyote use in the rest of the U.S. population is between 1% to 2%. However, most data sources that quantify drug use exclude peyote, making it difficult to gauge the full scope of use.

Though peyote can cause negative effects, research that has been done indicates that ingesting peyote does not appear to be life-threatening. Most adverse effects of the drug go away in time.

However, the mescaline in peyote is known to be potentially harmful to developing fetuses. If you're pregnant or think you're pregnant, you should not use peyote.

Off-Label or Recently Approved Uses

Peyote is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled drug and its use is illegal in the U.S.

However, peyote has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years in religious ceremonies and to treat physical ailments. There remains an exception for members of the Native American Church.

When assisted by a healer or "roadman" (similar to a priest or minister), members use peyote to facilitate communication with the Great Spirit (also called the Creator).

Peyote and other hallucinogens are also being studied as possible treatments for mental health conditions that are associated with perceptual distortions, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and dementia.

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 will depend on a user's size, metabolism, and how much is ingested.

The physical effects of peyote are similar to those of LSD and may include:

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

Possible mental effects can include:

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

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, not much is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens, including peyote. However, it is known that repeated or long-term use of hallucinogens can cause the following effects:

  • Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). About 4% of people who use hallucinogens (including peyote and LSD) develop HPPD. The condition causes flashbacks of hallucinations and visual disturbances that do not go away and can interfere with a user's daily life. Symptoms can be mistaken for neurological disorders such as a stroke or a brain tumor.
  • Prolonged psychosis. Though it is also rare, symptoms of the condition include visual disturbances and scattered thinking, as well as periods of paranoia or mood disturbances.

Persistent psychosis and HPPD are both rare in people who use peyote, but they can occur. The conditions may begin 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. The following might indicate a person is using peyote.

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

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 relatively safe drug because of its presence in nature and long history of use in religious ceremonies. However, peyote use is not without its negative effects.

There is also confusion about peyote's legal status under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The act 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.

However, it is legal to grow peyote in Texas. Licensed peyote distributors must be registered with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (FDA).

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Like other psychedelics, peyote is not necessarily addictive when used sparingly, and in some cases, can be used to treat addiction and substance abuse. However, peyote users are more susceptible to building a high 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 a user's system depends on individual factors, such as metabolism, body mass, age, hydration level, physical activity, and health conditions.

There isn't a definite period of time that peyote can remain in the body. However, there is an estimated range of times during which peyote can be found with certain tests.

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

Screening for peyote use is not included in routine drug tests, Mescaline must be specifically tested for.

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 keep in mind include:

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

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 help.

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