The peyote cactus is flat, button-shaped, and often topped with a white flower. You might even trip on it if you were out wandering in the desert. But this unassuming plant packs great power: Its nodules contain mescaline, a potent psychedelic that causes effects similar to LSD.
American and Mexican Indians have long employed peyote for spiritual and ritual purposes. Early users ingested the plant by slicing and drying the cactus’s crown into “buttons” and then chewing them straight, mixing them into food, or making a tea. Archaeologists found several of these dried buttons in the Shumla Caves, and estimate that they are more than 5,000 years old.
After consumption, individuals experience colorful, kaleidoscopic hallucinations, feelings of weightlessness, increased awareness, and a sense of clarity. Less-pleasant sensations include increased body temperature, elevated heart rate, intense sweating, nausea, and vomiting. These feelings can last up to ten hours.
But peyote’s more uncomfortable side effects do not deter users seeking healing or spiritual enlightenment. In Mexico, the Huichol people still turn to the cactus for visions and connection to the gods. American Indian communities host traditional peyote ceremonies for those with medical problems, including substance abuse. Some researchers have even looked into the Navajo’s use of peyote as a means of treating alcohol addiction.
Today, foreigners intrigued by peyote’s psychedelic effects are compromising its availability. Poor harvesting techniques and unsustainable numbers of tourists (with high hopes for wild trips) have endangered the cactus, particularly in the northern Mexican town of Real de Catorce. Because harvesting peyote is technically illegal, enforcing protection is complicated.
Perhaps what remains of peyote is best left to the experts—those who have sustainably used the cactus for sacred purposes over thousands of years. Without respectfully limited use, the magic may soon run out.