Desert Tripping – A Closer Look at Peyote: Spiritual, Medicinal, & Controversial

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There’s something about those vast desert landscapes – overflowing with emptiness, hostility, and a unique style of beauty – that seem to trigger deep and introspective spiritual experiences in many of us.

It’s a fact that since ancient times, humans have gravitated toward the artistic and transcendental nature of the desert. This phenomenon can be noted throughout different periods of time, from desert theology in the Old Testament, to Jim Morrison’s “lizard king” adventures in New Mexico, to the droves of artists and free thinkers currently flocking to the Mojave. If there’s one thing that can be said about desert landscapes, it’s that they are truly magical – in their own rugged, untamable, and dangerous type of way.

All that magic, wonder, and spiritual freedom also leads to curiosity and, more often than not, an urge to become more connected to the surrounding environment. Where can I go to be even more alone? What else is out there? What kind of plants can get me high and boost my meditative experience? All valid questions, but let’s focus on that last one.

Most deserts have some type of hallucinogenic plant, but not all psychedelics are created equal. For example, in my neck of the woods (Joshua Tree) you’ll find Jimson Weed everywhere, a beautiful white flower which can certainly get you high… but it’s usually a bad trip that ends with illness and sometimes even death. No fun. Now, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Chihuahuan desert a bit further east, you’ll find a small cactus that doesn’t look like much but is world renowned for the emotional, spiritual, and physical experience it can provide – Peyote.

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Peyote:  A botanical overview

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a small, spineless cactus with psychoactive alkaloids, the main one of interesting being mescaline. Peyote is a Spanish word derived from the Nahuatl peyōtl meaning “caterpillar cocoon”. It’s native to Mexico and southwestern Texas, and some parts of southeastern New Mexico. It is found primarily in the Chihuahuan desert and Sierra Marde occidental regions.

The Peyote cactus grows among thorny shrubs in the high regions, mainly between 330 and 4,920 ft, although in some rare circumstances, it has been found at elevations as high as 6,200 feet. It’s a very hardy plant that can grow in many different types of increment weather conditions, mainly, it just needs that dry desert air. It’s common to find it growing on or near limestone hills.

Peyotes are small, round, and somewhat flat, earthy green in color with tiny pink flowers at certain times of the year. It looks very similar to a green gourd with little flowers. The flowers bloom throughout spring and early summer, mostly from March to May, but can continue into September if conditions are ideal.

French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire first identified the species as Echinocactus williamsii in 1845. A few decades later, it was recategorized in the newly established genus Lophophora by American botanist John Merle Coulter in 1894.

More about mescaline

Mescaline is a naturally occurring, plant-based psychedelic protoalkaloid belonging to the  phenethylmine class. It’s known for its powerful hallucinogenic properties, comparable to those of LSD and psilocybin. In addition to Peyote, mescaline can be synthesized from a few other cactus species as well such as the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi), the Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruviana), and others.

A common dose for peyote is roughly 200 to 400 mg, depending on the person’s size, level of experience with the plant, and other factors. This translates to about 10 to 20 grams of dried peyote buttons, although potency can vary considerably between plants. The effects of mescaline last about 10 to 12 hours and can trigger very rich visual and auditory hallucinations.

Mescaline binds to virtually all serotonin receptors in the brain but has a stronger affinity for the 1A and 2A/B/C receptors. It’s structurally similar to LSD and often used as a benchmark when comparing psychedelics. Proper brain function is dependent on accurate signaling between these receptors.

Spiritual and cultural history

Cacti containing mescaline have a long history of use in Central and South America. Peyote, specifically, has been documented use dating back about 5,700 years, but it was likely being utilized way before then. Many Native American religious ceremonies included the use of peyote, and this was first noted by European settlers in the 1500s.

Although peyote use was widespread at the time, misguided Spanish conquistadors, banned the act in most regions. Yes, they went to a country that was not theirs and prohibited acts they knew nothing about. That said, religious persecution confined peyote usage to a few select areas near the Pacific coast and up to southwest Texas.

However, by the 1800s, peyote use began to spread away from those area, north into Central America. This was credited to a “new kind of peyote ceremony” initiated by the Kiowa and Comanche people. In 1920, these religious practices were written into United States under laws established to protect the beliefs and rituals of the Native American Church.

It has since spread throughout the United States and as far north as Saskatchewan, Canada. To this day, peyote is LEGALLY used in religious tribal ceremonies. Although it is federally prohibited for most U.S. citizen, there are exceptions in place for members of the Native American Church.

In traditional peyote preparations, the top of the cactus is cut off, leaving the large tap root along with a small, green photosynthesizing area where new heads can grow. These heads are then dried to make disc-shaped buttons. The buttons are chewed or soaked in water to make a beverage. Peyote is extremely bitter though, so, more contemporary users will usually grind the dried buttons into a powder and pour into capsules to consume.

What does the science say about Peyote?

In various indigenous cultures, peyote is used medicinally as well. For example, it has been used to treat various ailments and illnesses including snake bits, diabetes, skin conditions, general pain, hormonal issues, viruses, and even blindness. Aside from mescaline, peyote also contains an alkaloid called peyocactin, or hordenine as it’s more commonly referred to. In numerous studies, hordenine has been shown to assist with athletic performance and weight loss.

Peyote’s powerful effects on the serotonin system makes it a promising option for treating depression, PTSD, addiction, and other mental health disorders. In fact, research indicates that mescaline can increase blood flow and activity in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain regulates our ability to make plans, solve problems, control our emotions, and monitor our behavior. Low activity and poor circulation in this brain region has been linked to depression, anxiety, and subsequently, addiction and other disorders. All problems that psychedelics, including mescaline, have been used to alleviate.

Furthermore, following a peyote high, many users experience something known as the “afterglow”, that can last up to 6 weeks after a trip. During the afterglow period, users report feeling happier, less anxiety, more empathic, less prone to cravings, and more open to communication. These afterglow effects can increase the efficiency of therapy sessions while allowing the patient/user to feel some clarity and peace. Despite all being anecdotal, this information does have some obvious implications for future psychiatric treatment options to relieve depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

When it comes to side effects, especially long term, the research is extremely limited. It’s is considered a generally safe substance (depending on who you ask), and a lethal dose has not yet been identified. Meaning, there are no documented deaths from a peyote overdose.

Some studies have found a correlation between certain mental health problems and bad trips, although that is subjective as a bad trip can be triggered by many different external factors. However, in a 2005 study of Native American ceremonial use, there were no indications of any negative, long term health effects from regular peyote use. According to the research, “peyote appears to present little risk of flashbacks, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).”

What to expect

Should you decide to try peyote for yourself, you can expect to start feeling the effects coming on in about 30 minutes. Typically, you will experience some mild physical discomfort such as sweating or feeling bloated, but that subsides pretty quickly, eventually giving way to feelings of calm, peace, and acceptance.

You will peak, or feel the maximum psychoactive effects, at around two to four hours into your trip. Many people describe it as mystical, transcendental, profound, and eye-opening. They feel deeply connected to themselves, their thoughts, and the world around them. Visual distortions are also common – colors can seem more vibrant, patterns can looks like they’re moving, and you might see walls or other inanimate objects that appear to be breathing. Some believe they’re seeing the actual energy or lifeforce in everything around them.

Bad trips, or negative highs, are also a possibility, but they’re more likely to occur when a user overlooks the importance of setting the stage before they get high. It’s important to make sure you’re somewhere safe with people who you feel comfortable around. Any anxieties about your immediate environment have the tendency to result in a bad trip.

Final thoughts

If you’re looking for a natural, therapeutic hallucinogen that is deeply rooted in Native American shamanic culture, look no further than the peyote cactus. It’s a powerful psychedelic, endemic to the Chihuahuan desert, that is still used in religious ceremonies to this day.

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