Is Mescaline a Harmful Drug?

Hand shown harvesting peyote button
Farmer Dodds

Mescaline, also known as  2-(3,4,5-trimethoxyphenyl)ethanamine, is a hallucinogenic drug which occurs naturally in certain cacti plants native to the South West United States, Mexico, and South America. These plants include the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), the trichocereus pachanoi (San Pedro cactus), and the trichocereus peruvianus (Peruvian Torch cactus).

Mescaline is an interesting substance, having a long history in the psychological literature and a substantial role in both ancient and modern cultures.

Cultural Uses

Mescaline has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years in religious ceremonies and for the treatment of various physical ailments. Although the use of peyote is illegal in the United States, it is recognized as a sacrament in the Native American Church of North America, facilitating communication with the Creator when assisted by a Roadman, the equivalent of a priest or minister.

When peyote is used in this way it is exempt from its classification as a Schedule 1 controlled drug under the 1994 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. 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.

Mascaline is made from the fruit or buttons which grow on the outside of the cactus, which are cut off and dried and eaten or sliced, boiled, and drunk as a tea. The effects of mescaline last for 10 to 12 hours, although the use of mescaline as a sacrament takes place over two days.

Mescaline is sometimes referred to as mescal. This is commonly confused with the Mexican alcoholic beverage, mezcal, which, despite drug folklore, is made from agave, not a cactus, and does not contain mescaline. The worm that is sometimes found in a bottle of mezcal does not, as often purported, induce a mescaline high because it does not contain mescaline either.

Although mescaline is not a particularly well-known street drug, it holds a special place in the culture of drug use and particularly among psychedelic drug users who may believe that, like magic mushrooms and marijuana, that psychedelic cactus are sacred plants and should be revered due to their occurrence in nature.

Non-Ceremonial Use 

Although peyote can be used by Native Americans legally for ceremonial purposes, a small proportion uses the substance in recreational ways. While the research available is not extensive, one study of 89 Native American adolescents who came to a tribally operated residential substance use treatment program was conducted between 1998 and 2001. The treatment program was designed to provide specialized treatment to people with substance use and other co-occurring mental health problems and used a culturally sensitive approach to treatment.

Most of the study participants were boys (65 percent), who did not come from a two-parent household (75 percent). They tended to use many different substances, on average over five and reported many different symptoms and disorders related to their substance use. Out of 89 adolescents, only 10 (11.2 percent) reported the illicit use of peyote. Most of them said they had only used illicit peyote once or twice in their lifetime. Those who had used illicit peyote were more likely to report low levels of social support, low levels of self-esteem, and low identification with Native American culture, although they had similar levels of involvement in Native American traditional practices as those who did not use illicit mescaline.

The authors of the study concluded that non-ceremonial use of mescaline is not very common among Native American adolescents with serious substance abuse problems.

Popular Culture

Mescaline was the hallucinogenic drug used by Aldous Huxley, which inspired him to write the classic text on the psychedelic experience, The Doors of Perception, published in 1954.

Huxley described the experience of taking mescaline as opening up new ways of looking at the world that had not been available to him prior to taking the drug. The Doors of Perception, the inspiration for the name of the psychedelic rock band The Doors, was instrumental in promoting the widespread popularity of hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s, although it was LSD rather than mescaline that was most frequently used at that time.

Long before Huxley's documented mescaline trip, the experience of taking mescal was documented by renowned psychologist Havelock Ellis, who identified many of the effects later described by others. As with Huxley, Ellis described the experience of taking mescaline positively, finding it stimulating on physical, sensory, and intellectual levels. Ellis predicted a great future for the drug, which he anticipated had considerable potential for therapeutic use.

In 2013 the drug was the subject of the movie Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus. Unfortunately, this film was a missed opportunity to provide insight into the drug experience, focusing instead on the young adult characters' attempts to obtain the drug and the social interactions between them. When the unlikable central characters finally get around to consuming the substance, there is very little noticeable difference in their behaviors and no portrayal of the drug experience from the user's point of view.  Therefore, the movie has minimal educational value in terms of understanding mescaline use.

Is Mescaline Harmful?

Any substance that distorts the user's perceptions of reality is potentially harmful, as users can more easily misinterpret reality, or have accidents. However, in terms of toxicity, evidence may point to mescaline carrying a lower risk than many other recreational drugs.

A 12-year study of the California Poison Control System database for the years 1997 to 2008 showed that during that time there were only 31 cases of mescaline or peyote poisoning. However, this information should be interpreted in the context of mescaline being a much less commonly used substance than many other recreational drugs, so the actual rate of poisonings per number of users is not known. In fact, the researchers did not include anyone in the study who had taken other substances at the same time they took mescaline or peyote, therefore the researchers were not able to follow up in terms of what the outcomes were for those who used mescaline along with other substances.

Also, as mescaline is often thought of as a "natural" or "safe" substance, users may be less likely to report effects than with "chemical" substances, instead perhaps choosing to manage the effects of the drug without the support of health services.

The 31 people who did report poisonings related to peyote and mescaline use experienced very unpleasant symptoms. Commonly reported effects of taking mescaline included:

  • Hallucinations, or seeing or hearing things that are not there or have no actual basis in reality. Although hallucinations are an expected or even desired effect of hallucinogenic drugs, sometimes users find them much more troubling or frightening than expected, and, although users typically know hallucinations that occur in a mescaline intoxicated state are not real, they can cause a lot of confusion and distress.
  • Tachycardia, or rapid heart rate. This was defined as a heart rate over 100 beats per minute (bpm) or the presence of the term “tachycardia” in the free text of the case. While there may not be severe physical consequences of tachycardia for mescaline users, a fast heart rate can sometimes create anxiety in users, which has a further effect on speeding up the heart rate. Users can feel panicky, particularly if they are worried that using the drug is causing heart problems.
  • Agitation, which is an emotional state of nervousness or nervous excitement, can occur out of nowhere when people take substances such as peyote or mescaline, or it can result from excessive worrying about other symptoms such as whether hallucinations are real or whether they are having heart problems. Agitation can quickly turn to panic for people who are intoxicated on hallucinogens, which can lead to dangerous agitated behavior such as running off into unsafe environments like city streets with traffic, or rural areas with environmental hazards such as heights, swamps, etc.

    Less common effects included seizures, loss of consciousness, and vomiting. One person was reported to have experienced a seizure at home after ingestion of peyote; another was found unconscious and drooling after consuming peyote tea. Vomiting was also reported in one case. Other sources have indicated that vomiting is more common after taking peyote, perhaps due to the bitter taste.

    While these more serious effects don't appear to happen very often to people who use peyote or mescaline, it is important for users and potential users to be aware that taking these substances does carry these risks.

    Although most people needed medical treatment, not all of them did. Twenty-six (84 percent) of the people who reported mescaline or peyote poisoning were treated in a healthcare facility, whereas the other five patients (16 percent) were managed at home. Fortunately, all of these patients survived and most were treated for less than 24 hours, only one needing treatment for three days.

    A Word From Verywell

    In conclusion, mescaline is a psychoactive substance with a rich cultural history, and which has an intriguing status in popular culture. However, it does not appear to be commonly used and the risks, although significant, do not appear to be as problematic as those related to many other recreational drugs.

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    Article Sources
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