Peyote is a small, button shaped cactus native to Mexico and southern parts of the United States. Potent compounds in peyote, such as mescaline, cause it to have a hallucinogenic effect in humans.

Although peyote has historically had spiritual and ritualistic uses — among Native Americans, in particular — today, many people also use the plant recreationally.

Peyote may also have some health benefits, but research is still in its early stages. Peyote and mescaline both carry risks, and some people may experience side effects after ingesting the plant.

Keep reading to learn more about peyote and mescaline, including origins, how they affect the body, and some of the risks and potential benefits of use.

A close-up shot of peyote cactus, some of which are flowering.Share on Pinterest
Ingesting peyote may cause psychedelic effects.

The peyote cactus, or Lophophora williamsii, gets its common name from the Nahuatl language. The plant is a small, button shaped cactus that grows predominantly in Mexico and the southern parts of the U.S.

Native Americans have known of the plant’s hallucinatory properties for thousands of years, and peyote still holds a sacred place in these cultures. In fact, over 40 tribes in North America and Western Canada still use it in sacred religious ceremonies.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) restrict peyote, listing it as a Schedule 1 drug. However, some organizations do not abide by this listing. For example, the Native American Church still use the plant in religious ceremonies and are exempt from the scheduling.

To those who view peyote as sacred, the experience with this plant is a sort of communion or religious sacrament. The ritual varies from tribe to tribe and may include other practices, such as meditation, chanting, or various cleansing ceremonies.

Even the process of acquiring the peyote, called “the hunt,” is a part of the ritual. In the past, some Native Americans would travel up to 322 kilometers (200 miles) on foot to attain the peyote.

Since its scientific discovery around the turn of the 20th century, peyote use has expanded. Now, many people use the plant or its extracts recreationally.

Taking whole peyote or the active alkaloid mescaline produces the psychedelic effects associated with the plant.

Mescaline interacts with the 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, which pertain to how the body uses serotonin. These receptors are also the targets of other classic hallucinogens, such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. They are likely responsible for the “trip” a person experiences when using these substances.

People can ingest mescaline in several ways. Eating the dried crowns of the peyote cactus, boiling the cactus to make tea, and taking capsules containing peyote or mescaline are all common ways. There are also synthetic forms of mescaline, which are generally available in the form of capsules.

An exact dosage is difficult to quantify, as the plants themselves vary in potency when a person picks them.

Once a person ingests it, the body absorbs mescaline rather quickly. The effects may begin in under an hour and can last for around 12 hours. As the body breaks down the mescaline, the effects wear off.

The peyote cactus is a classic hallucinogen in the same class as LSD, which has led to much of the controversy surrounding it.

A person who takes peyote will likely have a psychedelic or hallucinogenic trip. Mescaline, which is the psychoactive component in peyote, is responsible for this effect.

The effects will be different for everyone, though most people experience vivid hallucinations.

These hallucinations may affect multiple senses, and many people describe the trips as involving a mixing of the senses. For example, people may claim to be able to “see sounds” or “feel colors.”

The hallucinogenic effects of mescaline also appear to enhance the senses. Colors, sounds, and even experiences may feel richer or bolder. Time may become distorted to some people. For others, the field of vision and objects within may shift or change.

Visions are common with mescaline, especially in higher doses. These visions are experiences that are not happening in the “real” world, but they will feel very real to the person experiencing them.

Visions may be either overwhelmingly joyful or terrifying. They may seem highly significant to the person, but they may also feel very chaotic.

Like other hallucinogens, mescaline may cause some people to have a “bad trip.” These may involve negative feelings, experiences, and emotions.

The person may feel terrified, be haunted by negative hallucinations, or continuously relive negative moments. Also, because of the feeling of time distortion, the person may have severe anxiety or feel trapped within these experiences.

Both good and bad experiences are temporary, and the effects will fade as the body processes the mescaline out of the system.

People take peyote for the hallucinogenic effect and trip, but the plant may also cause some physical reactions and adverse side effects.

Taking peyote may cause temporary reactions within the body, such as:

  • increased heart rate
  • numbness
  • tension
  • increased blood pressure
  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle weakness
  • headaches
  • dilated pupils
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sweating
  • shivering

Also, it is not uncommon for people who use peyote to have momentary flashbacks at a later time, such as moments of recalling or feeling a trip vividly.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also warn that because hallucinogens alter perception and behavior, they may make some people act in ways that are unusual for them.

Overdosing on a classic hallucinogen such as peyote is rare. Treatment generally involves treating any problematic symptoms that arise, such as fever and fluid loss from vomiting.

The main long-term concern with using hallucinogens is a series of continuous mental problems and disturbances called persistent psychosis. However, this is very rare.

A study in the journal Current Molecular Pharmacology notes that addiction and dependence are essentially absent with mescaline. However, some people may be more prone to abusing hallucinogens such as peyote.

Various Indigenous cultures that revere the plant believe that it has a vast number of health benefits for the body. For example, they may use peyote to treat a number of ailments, from snake bites and wounds to systemic problems such as diabetes, skin conditions, and general pain.

The potential benefits may arise from the plant itself, the physical reaction the body has to the plant, or the experience that one has after ingesting the cactus.

That said, Western medicine does not back the majority of these claims, so researchers must continue to study these traditional uses of peyote and mescaline.

This current lack of evidence is due, in part, to the fact that peyote is a Schedule 1 drug in the U.S. It is, therefore, difficult to obtain and study.

Peyote is an important plant for many Native American tribes who use it as a spiritual medicine in their rituals.

Although some people use peyote recreationally, it is important to remember that it can have numerous side effects. However, an overdose resulting in death is very unlikely with this substance.

Some users may hold that the plant has some health benefits, but research does not yet back up these claims. With more research into compounds such as mescaline, more potential uses may arise.