Peyote is a spineless cactus found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It is one of the oldest known hallucinogenic drugs. Its active ingredient, mescaline, can alter a person’s perceptions of reality and cause long-lasting visual hallucinations that can be pleasant or terrifying.
For hundreds of years, people have used the hallucinogenic cactus in sacred religious ceremonies and healing rituals. But since the 1970s, recreational use of peyote has increased.
Peyote can be used in several ways. Small disc-shaped buttons on the head of the cactus can be dried and then eaten or brewed into peyote tea. Or the buttons can be ground into a powder and smoked with tobacco or marijuana. Ground peyote powder can also be placed in gel caps and swallowed.
A synthetic version of mescaline comes in capsule or tablet form. A liquid form of mescaline can be injected, but this method of use is not common.
While mescaline is chemically similar to synthetic hallucinogens, such as ecstasy, its effects are longer-lasting. The high from ecstasy usually wears off within a few hours, but the effects of peyote and mescaline gradually diminish over 10 to 12 hours.
Peyote is not believed to be addictive, and abuse of the drug is rare.
In 2016, only 61 cases of peyote or mescaline exposure were reported to poison control centers, according to the Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System.
But with repeated daily use, people can rapidly develop a tolerance to peyote or mescaline. Tolerance means that a person must take increasingly higher doses of the drug to feel the same effects.
While tolerance can be a sign of physical dependence on a drug, dependence is not the same as drug addiction.
Peyote tolerance can develop within three to six days of daily use. Abstaining from the drug for several days typically restores a person’s sensitivity to mescaline.
Most people use peyote for its psychedelic effects, but the drug can also cause an array of unpleasant physical symptoms.
The effects of mescaline usually occur within one to two hours of use. Intense nausea and vomiting may precede the drug’s hallucinogenic effects.
Other physical signs and symptoms of peyote or mescaline use include:
Reactions to peyote are unpredictable. The effects of the drug may vary depending on the amount taken, the potency, personal expectations and the person’s environment. While some people find peyote’s effects enjoyable, others find them sickening and upsetting.
People who ingest peyote and other forms of mescaline often enter a dream-like state with rich visual hallucinations.
It’s common for someone high on mescaline to see repeating geometric patterns called form constants. These kaleidoscopic patterns may look like tunnels, spirals, honeycombs or cobwebs.
A phenomenon known as synesthesia may also occur. People experiencing synesthesia experience a blending of senses. They may feel like they can see music or hear colors.
Other psychological effects of peyote can include:
Altered perceptions of time and space are common, and a person’s body may feel different. Some people may develop a weightless, floating sensation. Others may feel heavy and weighted down.
Some people who use peyote will experience flashbacks to hallucinations long after they stop using the drug. This long-term effect, known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, has also been reported with other psychedelic drugs.
According to a 2017 article in the journal Current Neuropharmacology, long-term use of mescaline has been linked to anxiety, depression and other psychological disturbances.
Since 1965, the traditional ceremonial use of peyote by Native Americans has been protected by federal law.
But outside of this narrow exemption, peyote and mescaline remain illegal in this country. Both are classified as Schedule I drugs, meaning they have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
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