What is Peyote?

We take a look at the facts


Peyote has been front and center of pop culture for many years. In fact, if you’ve ever taken the time to see the movie The Doors about the iconic band of the same name, you’ve probably heard ‘peyote’ heavily mentioned. From movies to music, peyote has been part and parcel of a burgeoning culture that valued freedom of expression. In spite of this, many people are unfamiliar with what exactly peyote is, what it does and how it may affect users.

A Short History of Peyote

Peyote is a hallucinogenic substance native to Mexico and parts of Texas. It can be found mostly in Mexico’s desert regions, specifically in the areas of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. It is known scientifically as Lophophora williamsii.

However, its common name is a Spanish derivation of the Aztec word “Peyoti,” meaning “glistening,” or “shining.” It is a short, stubby plant with bulbous formations that contain the active ingredient, mescaline. It has a strong and bitter taste that keeps it safe from predation from other animals.

Mesoamerican cultures including the Aztecs utilized peyote in their religious practices. Archeologists date its use back at least 5000 years. Shamans or priests used peyote to induce a state of altered consciousness and to communicate with divine spirits or powers.

Peyote has been reported to cause mystical hallucinations and experiences. Users would typically cut the cactus plant from the root and dry it. After it is dried it is either chewed or soaked in water. The water can later be imbibed. Much like cannabis, it can also be smoked.

It also has a long history of being used in Native American religious ceremonies.  While illegal in most states, peyote is permitted within the confines of the Native American Church according to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Today, it is considered a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are noted for their high potential of abuse and are not considered to have an accepted medical use.

How Does Peyote Work?

Peyote is defined as a psychedelic. Psychedelics are a group of substances that can affect the brain in ways which change how external stimuli are interpreted. Peyote derives its mind-bending capabilities from the chemical mescaline. Mescaline accounts for 0.4% in fresh cactus and up to 6% in dried cactus.

It has extreme psychoactive effects that can often be felt as little as thirty minutes after consumption and can last for as long as eight hours. Mescaline can also be artificially synthesized, but can only be used for scientific and medical research.

Peyote is considered a serotonergic substance and affects serotonin (5-HT) receptors in the brain. These receptors are largely responsible for inducing feelings of happiness, joy, and well-being. In an imaging study[1][2], it is indicated that mescaline activates several different parts of the brain and reduces activity in the default mode network, a part of the brain that is involved in the perception of the self. Peyote activates areas in the prefrontal cortex, which is dedicated to mood and cognition.

Other compounds in peyote include lophophine and homopiperonylamine. Both lophophine and homopiperonylamine are considered analogs or substances that share a common chemical structure and yet have important morphological differences.

Ingestion of peyote produces vivid hallucinations, and users may see or hear things that aren’t there. There have been reported instances of synesthesia, a condition in which one of the senses (including taste, touch or smell) is activated but another responds. This may cause users to “see” music or “hear” colors. Users have indicated having intense mystical experiences when under the influence of peyote.

Similar Substances

Peyote is part of a group of substances that can affect cognition and the ways in which we perceive. Peyote is considered a substance that is psychedelic or psychotropic. Substances in this category are noted to have an impact on brain function, thus producing mind-altering experiences. They can be placed into three main categories:

  • Serotonergic: This group activates the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is largely responsible for feelings of contentment, happiness, and well-being. It can also influence how sexual desire operates along with appetite, sleep patterns, and even temperature.
  • Empathogens: These substances are also known as entactogens and also activate the neurotransmitter serotonin. Empathogens can affect perception, cognition and cause auditory and visual hallucinations. They also influence feelings of empathy, emotional connection, and kinship.
  • Dissociatives: Psychedelics in this category can influence feelings of detachment and are often associated with “out of body experiences.” They can also alter perception and cognition.

These categories describe any number of psychedelic substances, including:

  • LSD
  • Toad Venom
  • Psilocybin mushrooms or ’shrooms
  • PCP
  • Ecstasy

Psychedelics affect the brain by activating the 5-HT2A receptors, also known as 2ARs. These receptors work in conjunction with serotonin and can profoundly alter the way individuals perceive the world around them.

Researchers suggest that the serotonin receptors have more than one way to be switched to the “on” position. Psychedelics often offer an alternative means of turning on serotonin receptors in the brain, leading users to have experiences that can be defined as mind-bending and/or mystical in nature.

Psychedelics have often been used in rituals and tribal traditions by indigenous peoples. They are increasingly being used to address such issues as depression, anxiety, and pain management. Those who take psychedelics do not report having the same experiences. Each user will have their own unique effect due to the user’s own cognition levels, mood, and their environment.

Other Psychedelics and Their Effects

LSD: LSD is shorthand for lysergic acid diethylamide. It is one of the better-known psychedelics and has many street names, including acid, dots, and mellow yellow. It can cause a number of physical and psychological effects, including changes in perception and thought, synesthesia, and hallucinations.

Toad Venom: This substance is known as the “God Molecule,” due to its powerful hallucinogenic effects. Users often report having intense feelings of well-being and contentment, along with having spiritual or mystical sensations and impressions.

Toad venom comes from two plant sources: Anadenanthera peregrine and Virola theiodora. It also comes from the secretions of the Bufo alvarius toad. This toad is typically found in the southwestern areas of the United States and northwestern Mexico.

Psilocybin mushrooms, or ’shrooms: Psilocybin mushrooms are a family of fungi often referred to as “magic mushrooms.” Users who ingest these mushrooms have reported intense feelings of euphoria, distorted cognition, visual and auditory hallucinations, lack of coordination and confusion.

PCP: PCP, or phencyclidine, is a dissociative substance that was originally created as an anesthetic. It was first brought to mainstream attention in the 60s and was known as the “the Peace Pill.” PCP may cause users to experience feelings of detachment from their surroundings and their general sense of self. PCP is packaged as a white crystalline powder and can be dissolved or broken down in water or alcohol. PCP is defined as a Schedule II drug.

Ecstasy: Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a stimulant that induces feelings of exhilaration and extreme joy or happiness. Ecstasy can cause a user to “crash,” after the psychoactive effects have gone away due to the reduction in serotonin. Ecstasy is often taken as a pill and is heavily associated with the club culture.

Psychedelics may be useful in treating a host of conditions and ailments. Many of these ailments include depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Recently, a number of stories have indicated psychedelics as a viable alternative to traditional medical treatments.

Researchers are also beginning to study psychedelics that can function in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments and for use in addition to recovery programs.  Psychedelics may be an option for radical cancer treatments and as an option for limited use in addiction programs. They are also useful in studying brain damage, as they may increase brain connections and neuronal growth.

Final Thoughts on Peyote

Peyote and other psychedelic substances can have a profound effect on how users see, hear, touch and taste. They are also reported to cause an increase in feelings of happiness, joy or possibly detachment and hallucinations. They can also contribute to feelings of kinship and emotional connection.

Peyote is a schedule I drug and like most other psychedelics is illegal to use and distribute. However, peyote is legal for use only in regards to religious practices related to the Native American church. Its use in religious ceremonies has been exempted by law.

Peyote has been popular in mainstream culture and has been covered in music and film. It has been used to undergo experiences deemed mystical or spiritual. Users have reported a number of effects including strong hallucinations, and synesthesia, a crossing over of senses.

Peyote is typically ingested by drying out the cactus plant and chewing it. It can also be soaked in water and then ingested through drinking. Similar to cannabis, it can also be smoked. Research results have indicated that peyote and other similar substances may be an alternative to traditional medicines and treatments. Information is constantly emerging on how peyote can be of medical value and use.