By Ina Woolcott
Peyote is a spineless cactus that is dome shaped and soft with button-like nodules. It is blue green in colour and grows to about 5cm tall and 8cm wide. There are 2 species, Mescal (Lophophora williamsii) which has flowers white or pink in colour, and Lophophora Diffusa which is more primitive with yellow to white flowers and a yellowy green body. These plants are native throughout the Chihuahuan Desert from central Mexico to southern Texas and are also known as Mescal. Peyote is an entheogen containing mescaline as its primary active chemical, well known for its hallucinogenic effect after chewing the dried out or fresh nodules found on the cactus. They can also be boiled and drunk as a bitter tea. A ‘trip’ last around 6-12 hours depending on the individual. Unfortunately, Peyote takes 30 years to mature and flower and due to over-cultivation is in danger of being extinct in the wild.
The usage of Peyote
The Peyote Cactus has a history of traditional use amongst Native American tribes as a shamanic teacher plant that can give visions of an alternate reality or the spirit world. It has been used by indigenous tribes, shamans and medicine men such as the Navajos of South West USA and the Huichol of northern Mexico for the psychedelic effects when ingested, to communicate with the spirit world and as a medicine. Huichol Indians rub the juices of fresh peyote into wounds to prevent infection and to promote healing. Peyote’s known history dates back to pre-Columbian times; possibly as early as 300 B.C. This is a part of traditional rituals and ceremony. Peyote has many uses in folkloric medicine, e.g. influenza, intestinal disorders, diabetes, the treatment of arthritis, consumption, snake and scorpion bites and datura poisoning.
The sad thing is that ever since the first Europeans arrived in the New World, Peyote has provoked controversy, suppression, and persecution. The Spanish conquerors condemned its usage for its “satanic trickery”, and it more recently came under attack by local governments and religious groups. Nevertheless, this amazing plant continued to play a major sacramental role among the Indians of Mexico, whilst its use has spread northward into the United States and Canada among many of the Plains Indian Tribes such as the Navajo, Comanche, Sioux, and Kiowa in the last two centuries.
The Native American Church movement was started in the late 1800’s when Native spirituality was revived. The church was officially ‘opened’ in 1918. This is one of the official organisations that use Peyote in their spiritual practises. The ‘Peyotero’ leads the ceremony and is similar to a shaman or medicine man. The use of Peyote has faced many legal challenges for non-Native Americans. In the USA, federal law currently restricts peyote use in religious ceremonies to members of Federally Recognized Tribal groups.
Interest in this plant was renewed after Carlos Castaneda documented his uses of it under the tutelage of Don Juan Matus, who gave the plant the name Mescalito, the name given to the spirit of the plant which is supposed to be sensed by those using peyote to gain insight and wisdom in to their lives. Once ingested, an initial feeling of nausea can be experienced, then a shift in consciousness with visions and changes in perception, sense of time and mood. There are no uncomfortable after effects and it is not addictive. Peyote is said to initiate states of deep contemplation of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and profound insights that are of a metaphysical or spiritual nature. Feelings of inner tranquillity, oneness with life, heightened awareness, and rapid thought flow may be experienced. Everyone has their own unique experience. This can be accompanied with abounding visual or auditory effects. A mental state is also produced that allows users to feel closer to their ancestors and the Universe/All That Is/God. Peyote is also still used as a medicine to battle things such as alcoholism, drug abuse or other social ills.
Peyote is a controlled substance and illegal in all states of America, apart from use by Native Americans in their ceremonies. A federal law was passed in 1995 to confirm this protection of rights.
In Canada the compound Mescaline is illegal but peyote is specifically exempt. So it is legal to possess the cactus, but not to use it.
Internationally Article 32 of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances allows nations to exempt certain traditional uses of peyote from prohibition:
A State on whose territory there are plants growing wild which contain psychotropic substances from among those in Schedule I and which are traditionally used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites, may, at the time of signature, ratification or accession, make reservations concerning these plants, in respect of the provisions of article 7, except for the provisions relating to international trade.