By Ina Woolcott
What is San Pedro?
San Pedro is a fast-growing columnar cactus who’s botanical name is Trichocereus Pachanoi, not to be confused with its close relative the Peruvian Torch Cactus. It is native to the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, but it is cultivated all over Peru and other places in South America. In its natural environment San Pedro grows up to 20 feet high and is multi branched. The cactus is light to dark green, sometimes glaucous (covered with a bluish, greyish, or whitish waxy coating or bloom that rubs off easily). Generally it has between 4-8 ribs. Groups of 1-4 small, yellow to light brown, spines are located at the nodes which are evenly spaced apart (circa 2 cm apart) along the ribs.
San Pedro contains a number of psychoactive alkaloids, including mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine, 0.11 – 2.3%), and also 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenethylamine, 3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 4-hydroxy-3,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, anhalonidine, anhalinine, tyramine, hordenine and 3-methoxytyramine. Mescaline is an entheogen and also found in Peyote (Lophophora Williamsii), as well as other species of the Echinopsis genus such as Echinopsis peruviana, and Echinopsis scopulicola.
Who uses San Pedro and for What Purpose
San Pedro has a long history of traditional use. It has become the most popular cactus in neo-shamanic rituals due to its excellent fertility and ease of cultivation. The San Pedro cactus is used by shamanic tribes in the Andes as a psychedelic and for complex healing rituals and more recently, the western world. The mescaline is most commonly extracted by cutting the cactus into slices, boiling them for 5-7 hours and then juicing it into a green liquid. The tea is drunk during the shamanic ceremonies which usually take place at night. Dosages vary according to the purpose of the ceremony, although it is generally used in low doses. Sometimes the San Pedro is used in conjunction with other psychoactive plants, such as coca, tobacco, Brugmansia andAnadenanthera.
San Pedro is used by the Huachuma, Shamans of the Andes for guidance, decision making, healing, spirituality enhancing experiences, shamanic trances, to access other realms and the spirit world, and to remain in balance with the natural world. In the mountains above the Peruvian village Makahuasi there are ancient stone meditation huts which are still in use today. San Pedro shamans come here from all over the Andes to recharge their powers, sometimes in solo rituals. San Pedro has also been used throughout history by a number of different pre-Columbine cultures and civilisations that settled in northern Peru. San Pedro is a religious sacrament, healing medicine, and spiritual guide who’s psychedelic nature has been documented for a minimum of around 3000 years. Its use has been a continuous tradition in Peru all this time. In an old temple in Chavín de Huantar in the northern highlands of Peru, a carving was found with the earliest depiction of the cactus showing a mythological being holding the San Pedro. It belongs to the Chavín culture (c. 1400-400 BC), and dates about 1300 BC.
Today’s master shamans use San Pedro on ‘mesas’, (altars) erected for healing rites to treat enchantment and bad luck. The mesa follows a sophisticated ritual – sniff tobacco with alcohol, ingest San Pedro, pinpoint the diseases, cleanse the evil and the ill person will get better. This rite is performed in the early hours of Tuesdays and Fridays, these being sacred days in the Andean religions.
Shamans who use the psychoactive plants claim that much of the knowledge and insights gained comes directly from the plants themselves. That the plants have plant spirits. One example is that psychedelic plants are claimed to have taught songs (Icaro’s) to those who ingest them. This has been found with San Pedro using shamans, Ayahuasca drinkers in the Amazon, the Mazatec who use hallucinogenic mushrooms, and the Huichol who use Peyote.
The effects of San Pedro are more pleasant than those of peyote. It tastes only slightly bitter and the initial feeling of sickness is not as likely, although vomiting can occur. Its effects are felt within 1-2 hours of ingestion and can last up to 15 hours. When the experience fully takes hold it is less overwhelming, more tranquil and not nearly as physical as that from peyote. At first drowsiness or a dreaming state is felt accompanied by lethargy. Then a slight dizziness is experienced, followed by a great ‘vision’, a clearing of all the faculties. A light numbness is felt in the body and afterward a tranquillity. And then comes detachment, a type of visual force, including all the senses as well as the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter, a kind of removal of one’s thought to a distant dimension. Other potential effects include intense sensitivity to light, for instance being able to see and feel every ray of light. People and things may also be seen to ‘radiate’. Long lost memories may come back, being able to hear and see far off sounds and voices. Emotions may also be experienced and gone through such as laughing, crying, screaming, feeling pleasure, fear, love, love for everything that is and everything that is not.
Unsurprisingly, taking their general contempt for native life and particularly the use of psychoactive plants into account, European missionaries were very negative when reporting the use of the San Pedro.
San Pedro has been used medicinally to treat nervous conditions, cardiac disease, and high blood pressure.
Is it legal?
It is legal to cultivate the San Pedro cactus in most countries, but in countries where possession of mescaline and related compounds is illegal, cultivation for the purposes of consumption may be illegal. This is how it is in the USA, Australia, Canada, and the UK, where it is currently legal to cultivate San Pedro unless it is for the purposes of consumption.