From the Aztecs to the Hopi, peyote has been used by Indigenous peoples for centuries. This traditional form of medicine is used in ceremonies for healing, prayer, and communion. So how does peyote work, and what makes it different from other psychedelics?
In this article, we’ll look at the ins and outs of peyote, from where it grows to how people use it. Plus, we’ll talk about the Indigenous roots of peyote and the ongoing conversation about ethical ways to take it (including why the San Pedro cactus might be a better choice, but more on that later).
What is Peyote?
Peyote is a small, spineless cactus that grows in the desert regions of Mexico and Texas. The scientific peyote cactus name is Lophophora williamsii. Peyote’s common name comes from the Nahuatl word pey?tl, which means “caterpillar cocoon.”
The top of the peyote cactus (called the “crown”) consists of circular, greenish buttons that look like pincushions. These buttons contain the peyote drug, a psychoactive compound called mescaline.
People consume Lophophora williamsii in a few different ways: The buttons can be chewed, steeped in hot water to prepare a tea, or dried into a powder that can be added to capsules or liquids. The natural mescaline content can vary in peyote; it’s usually 0.4% in fresh cactus and 3% to 6% in dried cactus. 1
Indigenous populations have used peyote in spiritual rituals and healing ceremonies for thousands of years. However, as peyote has increased in popularity due to drug tourism, so too has the risk of overharvesting.
Today, peyote is considered vulnerable—a step away from endangered status. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it’s classified as “vulnerable” due to its decreasing population. 2 3
Peyote street names
Peyote can also be referred to by other names, including:
- Half Moon
Peyote plant locations
The peyote plant is native to the southwestern United States (specifically, Southern Texas) and northern Mexico. In Mexico, peyote locations include Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Nuevo León, where it grows in the wild.
Peyote can be cultivated in other areas, but its legality can vary. In Canada, peyote is legal to possess and use. But in the United States, peyote is a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that it’s illegal to grow and consume. Members of the Native American Church are exempt from this law because peyote is a sacrament in their religious ceremonies.
Texas is the only state in which it’s legal to sell peyote. There, distributors must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and can only sell to members of the Native American Church.
You might have heard of peyote’s psychoactive properties. When ingested, this psychedelic can cause visual and auditory hallucinations, an altered sense of space and time, and spiritual insights, among other effects. The experience can last as long as 12 hours. 1
Like other psychedelics, peyote’s effects depend on a person’s set, setting, dosage, and individual biology. It’s also important to note that using peyote recreationally is different from using it in a sacred ritual.
In North America, Indigenous peoples have used peyote for thousands of years. Native American tribes like the Hopi, Isleta, Taos, and Pima have used peyote for many reasons, but generally, a peyote ceremony is called for healing purposes.4
When we talk about the history of peyote, we talk about the history of peyote Native American use.
Indigenous peoples have used peyote in tribal ceremonies since 1000 B.C. 5 Scholars closely associate knowledge of peyote and its use with many southern plains and southwestern tribes in the United States and tribes located in present-day Mexico. 4
In the 1800s, Native American tribes were forcefully displaced from their native lands by Euro-American colonizers. During this time, aspects of Native American culture came under attack, including the use of peyote.
Despite pressures from colonizers and Christian missionaries, tribes such as the Cora, Huichol, and Tarahumara peoples carried on traditional peyote practices. In an attempt to protect the plant’s use among Indigenous people, the Native American Church (NAC) was formed in the late 1800s.
The NAC’s peyote ceremony transcended tribal affiliations and provided a way for tribal members to cope with the constraints of the federal government’s reservation system. The NAC also formed a foundation for the argument that peyote is an essential aspect of religious freedom for Native Americans. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act legally sanctioned peyote use among members of the NAC in religious ceremonies. 4
Among members of the NAC, peyote is considered a medicine, not a drug. Its spiritual significance is equivalent to the Judeo-Christian practice of taking communion with bread and wine. A peyote ceremony can be called for many reasons. Usually, the purpose is for healing, but ceremonies can also be called to give thanks, celebrate, or pray for loved ones, among other purposes. 6
The NAC peyote ritual is an all-night ceremony that involves fasting, prayer, and ingesting peyote. This is said to facilitate communication with a higher entity, communion with one’s fellow worshipers, and personal introspection. The ceremony takes place in a ceremonial structure, and the experience is led by a Roadman (also called the Road Chief or “the leader”). The Roadman is responsible for facilitating each individual’s experience.6 4 7
Members of the NAC also use peyote to treat addiction. In 1974, researchers documented the use of peyote in the treatment of alcoholism, noting that the specific aspects of the peyote ceremony (such as fasting and providing a forum to share emotions openly) foster a sense of community and personal identity, which can be valuable for people who struggle with alcoholism. 8
Scholars have noted that the effects of peyote are unique each time a person participates in a ceremony.4 A key element of this is peyote’s effect on the individual; it expands a person’s consciousness, allowing them to resolve physical, mental, and spiritual imbalances.
Taken together, the elements of the peyote ceremony among members of the NAC are a fully structured experience. The ceremony is not a drug trip; it’s a way to facilitate an open mindset in a safe setting. It’s not to be taken lightly.
Peyote remains a vital part of Indigenous cultures, but peyote use is uncommon among the general population.9 People may use peyote for spiritual experiences, insight, and personal growth, among other reasons. However, the experience largely depends on set and setting, as with other psychedelics.
As interest in plant medicine continues to grow, peyote becomes vulnerable to unsustainable harvesting practices that threaten its longevity in native traditions. Wild peyote should only be picked by peyoteros, people who are licensed by the government to harvest and sell peyote to members of the NAC.
Peyote hasn’t been extensively studied compared to its active compound, mescaline. However, in 2005, researchers found that long-term peyote use among members of the Native American Church was associated with better mental health in comparison to people of the Navajo Nation who did not use peyote. 10
In 2013, a population study examined peyote use among 130,152 respondents (not limited to Native American peoples). Researchers found that lifetime peyote use was significantly associated with a lower rate of psychiatric medication prescription, and it wasn’t associated with a higher rate of mental health problems. 11
Those findings were echoed in a 2021 online questionnaire, which examined responses from 452 people. After using mescaline in a naturalistic setting (that means in nature, not in a lab), respondents reported improvements in conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 12 Although survey results aren’t the same as clinical trials, they set the stage for future research.
Due to the cultural and ecological ramifications of peyote’s widespread use, some Native Americans have spoken against efforts to decriminalize peyote because the commercialization of peyote may distance the plant from its cultural roots and religious context. 13
Other natural sources of mescaline, like the San Pedro cactus, do not carry the same ecological and cultural implications and are arguably more accessible for non-Native users.
Is Peyote Legal?
In the United States, peyote and its active psychoactive compound, mescaline, are illegal. They’re Schedule I controlled substances, which means they’re in the same category as cannabis, heroin, and LSD.
In Canada, peyote is legal to grow and use. In the United Kingdom and parts of Australia, it’s legal to grow peyote for ornamental purposes.
However, members of the NAC have a legal exemption for peyote. Under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, peyote use is protected as a form of religious freedom. Licensed peyoteros can harvest peyote and sell it to members of the NAC.
Confusingly, state laws can differ from federal laws:14
- Almost all states (the exceptions are Idaho, Utah, and Texas) allow non-native, non-enrolled people to use peyote in the context of traditional Native American ceremonies.
- Some states allow peyote use within a bona fide religious ceremony (in the case of Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Mexico).
- Other states allow non-native people to use peyote if it’s done so with sincere religious intent (in the case of Arizona and Oregon).
Laws are different internationally. In Canada, peyote is legal to possess and use, although its use remains closely tied to North American Aboriginal rituals. 15
The Science Behind Peyote
The peyote cactus contains over 55 alkaloids, a type of naturally occurring, organic compound. Seven alkaloids are considered the main active compounds that affect the human body when peyote is consumed:
No two plants have the same ratio of alkaloids, which might explain why people report different experiences every time they consume peyote. 4 Of these alkaloids, mescaline is the most abundant and prevalent psychoactive compound.
Although it’s tempting to think of this relationship in the same way as the entourage effect exists in cannabis, some researchers believe that there isn’t a comparable relationship in psychedelics.
Dr. Alexander Sherwood, a medicinal chemist at the Usona Institute, told Psychedelic Science Review, “It is tempting to make an analogy between the effects produced by mixtures of lipophilic phytocannabinoids in cannabis and the various alkaloids in psychedelic mushrooms, peyote, or toad secretions, but none are directly comparable.” 16
What does peyote do to the brain?
First, a primer on how the brain works: Your neurons constantly send messages to keep your systems running. Those messages are sent via neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that bind to specific receptors like a key fits into a lock.
Mescaline acts on two receptors in the brain: serotonin and dopamine.
You might have heard of serotonin. This neurotransmitter is commonly associated with mood, but it also plays a significant role in cognition, sleep-wake cycles, and other essential processes. Dopamine allows you to feel pleasure and motivation, among other moods and behaviors.
Mescaline not only affects serotonin and dopamine levels but also interacts with the way information is processed in the brain. When a person ingests peyote, they experience changes in their mind and body that can expand their consciousness (the extent of which depends on factors like set, setting, and dosage).4
Common Ways to Prepare for Peyote
A peyote ceremony can last as long as 10 to 12 hours. The ceremony is typically preceded by a period of fasting, followed by a series of rituals that create a safe space for people to navigate their peyote experience.
These rituals foster a specific set and setting, terms that refer to a person’s mindset and environment during a psychedelic experience. Peyote is a sacred part of Native American traditions, and peyote ceremonies are facilitated by a leader who is responsible for guiding people through their experience within a ceremonial setting.
To prepare for this experience, people may choose to meditate, abstain from stressful situations and experiences, and establish an intention that they bring into the ceremony. Suggestions from the participant’s guide are crucial to a successful experience, starting at the preparation stage.
Medications and peyote
Psychedelic harm reduction practices call for tapering off medications that might interact with psychedelics. Peyote may interact with other substances and medications, including SSRIs and MAO-A inhibitors. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your medications, even if they are not listed here.
How to Take Peyote
The active ingredient, mescaline, is concentrated in the “buttons” of the peyote cactus. Peyote buttons are typically eaten whole. People may also choose to steep the buttons in hot water to prepare a tea, or dry and grind them into a powder that can be consumed in capsules.
It’s worth noting that some strains of marijuana have “peyote” in their names, such as Peyote Critical and the Peyote Cookies strain. These marijuana strains do not contain peyote and are not considered psychedelic, although they will have a psychoactive effect.
The typical hallucinogenic dose of mescaline is 5 mg/kg of body weight.
In a peyote ceremony, a person consumes a minimum of four peyote buttons and an average of about 12. Each peyote button is estimated to contain about 45 mg of mescaline. 8
Here’s how that equates to peyote buttons: 17
- Light dose: 3-6 mid-sized buttons (50-100 grams fresh, 10-20 grams dried)
- Typical dose: 6-12 buttons (100-150 grams fresh, 20-30 grams dried)
- Strong dose: 8-16 buttons (150-200 grams fresh, 30-40 grams dried)
- Heavy dose: 15+ buttons (200+ grams fresh, 40+ grams dried)
Peyote’s primary psychoactive compound, mescaline, is considered the least potent of the classic hallucinogens. A psychoactive dose of mescaline is 200 to 400 mg, which is about 2,000 times the quantity of LSD a person would need for comparative effects. 7
To complicate things, peyote buttons can contain varying levels of mescaline depending on factors like growing location, season, and age.
How Does Peyote Feel?
Peyote’s primary psychoactive compound, mescaline, causes a range of physiological and psychological effects that depend on a person’s set, setting, dosage, and individual biology.
People may experience the following:
- Changes to body temperature, such as sensations of both hot and cold
- Changes in mood
- Changes in perception of time
- Feelings of insight and creativity
- Fidgeting and restlessness
- Increased heart rate
- Increased salivation
- Rapid breathing
- Spiritual ideation and mystical experiences
- Urge to urinate or defecate
- Visual effects, such as enhanced colors and visual distortions
How Long Peyote Lasts
Peyote has a relatively slow onset. Its peak psychedelic effects are usually felt within two hours of ingestion, and the effects can last as long as eight hours.1Including the come-up and come-down period, a full peyote experience can last up to 12 hours.
Peyote is also associated with an afterglow effect, which refers to an elevated mood and sense of peace and can last as long as 10 days after taking peyote. 18
Coming Down From Peyote
Coming down from peyote can take an additional 1-2 hours. The effects gradually diminish over time, and residual effects might linger for several hours afterward. 19
Consider your local laws before proceeding. Peyote is illegal in most cases.
Peyote ceremonies are held by members of the Native American Church. Select states (such as Colorado and New Mexico) allow non-Native members to join ceremonies. Because of the cultural history and sacred nature of this cactus, if one is going to consume peyote, it should be done in accordance with local laws and under the guidance of Native religious leaders, in a way that honors and upholds Native traditions.
People who intend to take peyote recreationally should know that the San Pedro cactus is also a natural source of mescaline, and it doesn’t have the same cultural or ecological ramifications of peyote overharvesting.
Peyote Side Effects and Risks
Peyote is generally considered to be safe, even over lifetime use. During its onset, people might experience the following side effects: 6
- Body tremors
- Chest and neck pain
- Shortness of breath
People may also experience the hallmarks of a “bad trip,” such as frightening visions, anxiety, and fear. In the Native American Church, peyote ceremony leaders are trained to recognize signs of distress and guide a person back to the interpersonal world. 20
Scientific literature has also noted the potential risk of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) with mescaline. This disorder is characterized by visual “flashbacks”—such as trailing lights, floaters, and glowing lights—that persist after the acute effects of the drug have worn off.
Mescaline, the active psychedelic compound in peyote, has a potential risk of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD). This rare condition is also associated with other psychedelics, like psilocybin, MDMA, and cannabis. HPPD is defined by “flashbacks,” or halos, visual distortions, and flashing lights that persist after taking a psychedelic drug. 21
Peyote is generally considered to be safe, even over lifetime use, but there are certain contraindications (conditions that shouldn’t be combined with specific treatments). Peyote should not be used by people who have a history of mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, and people who are on certain mood-altering medications.
- Peyote and mental disorders. Like other hallucinogenic substances, peyote shouldn’t be used by people who have a history of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. 20 Hallucinogens could worsen existing mental conditions or walk back any progress the patient has made with medical management of the condition.
- Peyote and cardiovascular disease. Because peyote can cause changes in heart rate and blood pressure, people with a history of heart conditions should speak with their doctor before experimenting with hallucinogens.
- Peyote and drug interactions. Peyote can interact with certain medications and substances, including SSRIs, amphetamines, cannabis, and other psychedelic compounds. We don’t recommend combining peyote with other substances. Speak with a medical professional before making any changes to medications.
Peyote Personal Stories
Here are a few stories that highlight the history of peyote and people who have experienced its effects.
Tripping on Peyote in Navajo Nation – Scientific American
Journalist Jim Horgan recounts his experience participating in a peyote ceremony of the Native American Church, arranged by psychiatrist John H. Halpern, who has published research about peyote use among Native Americans. “The rituals, I realize, are just expressions
of gratitude for earth, fire, food, and other primordial elements of existence,” Horgan writes.
Peyote in Mexico – A World of Destinations
In this blog article, world traveler Maria recounts her experience taking peyote in a village in Mexico. She did peyote twice: she felt nauseous and anxious the first time but had a positive experience the second time. “I stopped to look around and to admire the beauty of nature, all the little miracles that create life on this planet,” she writes.
Important notes: In Mexico, it is illegal for people who are not part of the Wixárika (Huichol) tribe to harvest and use peyote. 22 Maria’s experience also includes venturing alone in nature, but it’s safest to trip with a sober sitter. Finally, Maria recommends specific locations in Mexico. Do your research ahead of time before traveling internationally.
How to Safely Source Peyote
In most instances, peyote is illegal to cultivate, harvest, and possess in the United States.
Peyote is considered a “vulnerable” plant, which is one step before endangered, and shouldn’t be picked in the wild. The problem with buying peyote buttons online is that black market sellers may harvest peyote using unsustainable methods; it’s best practice to only cut the top part of the cactus so that it can regrow over time, rather than pulling out the cactus by the root.
In the United States, it’s illegal to grow and consume peyote. In Texas, the only state where it is legal to sell peyote, licensed peyoteros are only allowed to sell to members of the Native American Church. That means that the peyote used in NAC ceremonies is more likely to be sourced sustainably.
People who want to take peyote should consider more sustainable alternatives, such as the San Pedro or Peruvian Torch cacti.
People who want to take peyote may want to consider seeking sources that respect the plant’s cultural history, such as peyote retreats with Indigenous leaders.
Avoiding scams and tourist traps
As plant medicine increases in popularity, so too does the prevalence of scammers and pseudo-shamans, as well as businesses that seek to monetize the peyote experience without respecting its Indigenous roots.
Here are some questions to consider to avoid scams and tourist traps:
- Double-check legality: Peyote laws can vary within different states and countries. If a peyote retreat is operating in the United States, are they affiliated with the Native American Church? If not, are they located in a state that allows peyote use within the bounds of bonafide religious use?
- Question the source: Is the peyote sustainably harvested in a way that honors Indigenous traditions? For those who are partaking in a peyote ceremony, ask about the facilitators: What is their background, and will a guide be available the entire time?
- Confirm the dose: How much peyote will be consumed during a ceremony, and in what form (eaten fresh or dried)?
- Research the setting: Before traveling to take peyote, research the location, including what the trip setting looks like, any past experiences from others, and the distance to any outside assistance. In case of emergency, what are the safeguards?
Frequently Asked Questions
What does peyote taste and smell like?
Peyote has a strong, bitter flavor that is usually described as unpleasant.
Can I grow peyote?
It depends on where you live. It’s illegal to grow peyote in the United States and Mexico. In Canada, peyote is legal to grow and use. In the United Kingdom and parts of Australia, it’s legal to grow peyote for ornamental purposes.
Is peyote the same as San Pedro cactus?
They’re different plants, but peyote is far rarer. The San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) is native to the Andes Mountains. It also contains mescaline, the psychoactive compound in peyote, and has a history of use in traditional medicine. It’s legal to grow (but not consume) in most countries, including the United States. Because of its prevalence throughout the world, the San Pedro cactus is less problematic than peyote in terms of sustainability.
Peyote vs. ayahuasca: What’s the difference?
No. Ayahuasca is a South American psychoactive brew that is made from a combination of plants, generally the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub. Ayahuasca’s active psychoactive compounds are DMT and 5-MeO-DMT, while peyote’s active compound is mescaline.
Can peyote be detected in a drug test?
Mescaline, the psychoactive compound in peyote, isn’t included in standard drug tests. However, mescaline can be detected in the blood for up to 24 hours and a hair follicle drug test for up to 90 days.
Is peyote addictive?
Peyote and its active compound, the hallucinogen mescaline, are not considered to be addictive, and the risk of drug abuse is low. However, as with any substance, it’s possible to become addicted to the behaviors associated with psychedelic use if a person is using it to escape from reality.
Can you smoke peyote?
Although peyote is sometimes combined with marijuana and tobacco, it isn’t hallucinogenic when smoked.
Peyote is a mescaline-containing cactus that is native to Mexico and southwestern Texas. When consumed, peyote can cause psychoactive effects like visual and auditory hallucinations and mystical experiences.
Peyote has a long history of use among Indigenous people. Under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, members of the Native American Church (NAC) are legally able to use this cactus in peyote ceremonies. Because peyote is vulnerable to overharvesting, NAC leaders have recommended that non-Indigenous people use other mescaline-containing cacti (like the San Pedro cactus or the Peruvian torch cactus) in order to preserve peyote for Indigenous populations.
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