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Peyote Cactus.jpg
Peyote in the wild

Vulnerable (NatureServe)[1]
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Core eudicots
Order: Caryophyllales
Family: Cactaceae
Genus: Lophophora
Species: L. williamsii
Binomial name
Lophophora williamsii
(Lem.) J.M.Coult.

Echinocactus williamsii Lemaire ex Salm-Dyck
Lophophora lewinii (K. Schumann) Rusby
Lophophora echinata Croizat
Lophophora fricii Habermann
L. williamsii var. fricii (Habermann) Grym
L. diffusa subsp. fricii (Habermann) Halda
Lophophora jourdaniana Haberman

Lophophora williamsii /lˈfɒfərə wɪlˈjæmsi/ or peyote (/pəˈjti/) is a small, spineless cactus with psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline.[2] The English common name peyote comes from the like-spelled Spanish name,[3] which in turn comes from the Nahuatl name peyōtl [ˈpejoːt͡ɬ], said to be derived from a root meaning "glisten" or "glistening". Other sources translate the Nahuatl word as "Divine Messenger".[4][5][6][7] Native North Americans are likely to have used peyote, often for spiritual purposes, for at least 5,500 years.[8]

Peyote is native to Mexico and southwestern Texas. It is found primarily in the Chihuahuan desert and in the states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí among scrub, especially where there is limestone.

Known for its psychoactive properties when ingested, peyote is used worldwide as an entheogen and supplement to various transcendence practices, including meditation, psychonautics, and psychedelic psychotherapy. Peyote has a long history of ritualistic and medicinal use by indigenous Americans. It flowers from March through May, and sometimes as late as September. The flowers are pink, with thigmotactic anthers (like Opuntia).


A group of Lophophora williamsii.
A flowering peyote.

The various species of the genus Lophophora grow low to the ground and they often form groups with numerous, crowded shoots. The blue-green, yellow-green or sometimes reddish green shoots are mostly flattened spheres with sunken shoot tips. They can reach heights of from 2 to 7 centimeters (0.79 to 2.76 in) and diameters of 4 to 12 centimeters (1.6 to 4.7 in). There are often significant, vertical ribs consisting of low and rounded or hump-like bumps. From the cusp areoles arises a tuft of soft, yellowish or whitish woolly hairs. Spines are absent. Flowers are pink or white to slightly yellowish, sometimes reddish. They open during the day, are from 1 to 2.4 centimeters long, and reach a diameter from 1 to 2.2 centimeters.

Lophophora williamsii seedling at roughly 1 1/2 months of age

The cactus produces flowers sporadically; these are followed by small edible pink fruit. The club-shaped to elongated, fleshy fruits are bare and more or less rosy colored. At maturity, they are brownish-white and dry. The fruits do not burst open on their own and they are between 1.5 and 2 centimeters long. They contain black, pear-shaped seeds that are 1 to 1.5 mm long and 1 mm wide. The seeds require hot and humid conditions to germinate. Peyote contains a large spectrum of phenethylamine alkaloids. The principal one is mescaline. The mescaline content of Lophophora williamsii is about 0.4% fresh[9] (undried) and 3-6% dried.[9] Peyote is extremely slow growing. Cultivated specimens grow considerably faster, sometimes taking less than three years to go from seedling to mature flowering adult. More rapid growth can be achieved by grafting peyote onto mature San Pedro root stock.[10]

The top of the cactus that grows above ground, also referred to as the crown, consists of disc-shaped buttons that are cut above the roots and sometimes dried. When done properly, the top of the root will form a callus and the root will not rot.[11] When poor harvesting techniques are used, however, the entire plant dies. Currently in South Texas, peyote grows naturally but has been over-harvested, to the point that the state has listed it as an endangered species.[citation needed] The buttons are generally chewed, or boiled in water to produce a psychoactive tea. Peyote is extremely bitter and most people are nauseated before they feel the onset of the psychoactive effects.

Distribution and habitat

Range of wild peyote

L. williamsii is native to southern North America, mainly distributed in Mexico. In the United States it grows in Southern Texas. In Mexico it grows in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas in the north to San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas.[12][13][14] It is primarily found at elevations of 100–1,500 m (330–4,920 ft) and exceptionally up to 1,900 m (6,200 ft) in the Chihuahuan desert, but is also present in the more mild climate of the state of Tamaulipas. Its habitat is primarily in desert scrub, particularly thorn scrub in Tamaulipas. It is common on or near limestone hills.[15]


Psychoactive and medicinal

Dried Lophophora williamsii slices ("Peyote Buttons") with a US 5 cent coin for scale
Chemical structure of mescaline, the primary psychoactive compound in peyote

When used for its psychoactive properties, common doses for pure mescaline range from roughly 200 to 400mg. This translates to a dose of roughly 10 to 20g of dried peyote buttons of average potency; however, potency varies considerably between samples, making it difficult to measure doses accurately without first extracting the mescaline. The effects last about 10 to 12 hours.[16] Peyote is reported to trigger states of "deep introspection and insight" that have been described as being of a metaphysical or spiritual nature. At times, these can be accompanied by rich visual or auditory effects (see synesthesia).[citation needed]

In addition to psychoactive use, some Native American tribes use the plant for its curative properties. They employ peyote to treat such varied ailments as toothache, pain in childbirth, fever, breast pain, skin diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, colds, and blindness.[citation needed] The US Dispensatory lists peyote under the name Anhalonium, and states it can be used in various preparations for neurasthenia, hysteria and asthma. Peyote also contains an alkaloid which was given the name peyocactin.[17] It is now called hordenine.[citation needed]

Chemical structure of hordenine (peyocactin), an antimicrobial compound contained in the peyote cactus


Two-week-old peyote cactus

In 2005 researchers used radiocarbon dating and alkaloid analysis to study two specimens of peyote buttons found in archaeological digs from a site called Shumla Cave No. 5 on the Rio Grande in Texas. The results dated the specimens to between 3780 and 3660 BCE. Alkaloid extraction yielded approximately 2% of the alkaloids including mescaline in both samples. This indicates that native North Americans were likely to have used peyote since at least five and a half thousand years ago.[8]

Specimens from a burial cave in west central Coahuila, Mexico have been similarly analysed and dated to 810 to 1070 CE.[18]

Peyote in Wirikuta, Mexico

From earliest recorded time, peyote has been used by indigenous peoples, such as the Huichol[19] of northern Mexico and by various Native American tribes, native to or relocated to the Southern Plains states of present-day Oklahoma and Texas. Its usage was also recorded among various Southwestern Athabaskan-language tribal groups. The Tonkawa, the Mescalero and Lipan Apache were the source or first practitioners of peyote religion in the regions north of present-day Mexico.[20] They were also the principal group to introduce peyote to newly arrived migrants, such as the Comanche and Kiowa from the Northern Plains. The religious, ceremonial, and healing uses of peyote may date back over 2,000 years.[21]

Under the auspices of what came to be known as the Native American Church, in the 19th century, American Indians in more widespread regions to the north began to use peyote in religious practices, as part of a revival of native spirituality. Its members refer to peyote as "the sacred medicine", and use it to combat spiritual, physical, and other social ills. Concerned about the drug's psychoactive effects, between the 1880s and 1930s, U.S. authorities attempted to ban Native American religious rituals involving peyote, including the Ghost Dance. Today the Native American Church is one among several religious organizations to use peyote as part of its religious practice.

A Native American Peyote Drummer (circa 1927)

Peyote and its associated religion are fairly recent arrivals among the Navajo in the Southwestern United States, and can be firmly dated to the early 20th century.[citation needed] Traditional Navajo belief or ceremonial practice did not mention the use of peyote before its introduction by the neighboring Utes. The Navajo Nation now has the most members of the Native American Church. According to some estimates, 20 percent or more of the Navajo population are practitioners.[citation needed]

Dr. John Raleigh Briggs (1851–1907) was the first to draw scientific attention of the Western scientific world to peyote.[22] Louis Lewin described Anhalonium lewinii in 1888.[23] Arthur Heffter conducted self experiments on its effects in 1897.[24] Similarly, Norwegian ethnographer Carl Sofus Lumholtz[25] studied and wrote about the use of peyote among the Indians of Mexico. Lumholtz also reported that, lacking other intoxicants, Texas Rangers captured by Union forces during the American Civil War soaked peyote buttons in water and became "intoxicated with the liquid".[26] Arguably, this is the first documented use of peyote by non-Native Americans.

Adverse reactions

A study published in 2007 found no evidence of long-term cognitive problems related to peyote use in Native American Church ceremonies, but researchers stressed their results may not apply to those who use peyote in other contexts.[27] A four-year large-scale study of Navajo who regularly ingested peyote found only one case where peyote was associated with a psychotic break in an otherwise healthy person; a handful of other psychotic episodes were attributed to peyote use in conjunction with pre-existing substance abuse or mental health problems.[28] Later research found that those with pre-existing mental health issues are more likely to have adverse reactions to peyote.[29] Peyote use does not appear to be associated with hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (a.k.a. "flashbacks") after religious use.[30] Peyote does not seem to be associated with physical dependence, but some users may experience psychological dependence.[31]

Peyote can have strong emetic effects, and one death has been attributed to esophageal bleeding caused by vomiting after peyote ingestion in a Native American patient with a history of alcohol abuse.[32] Peyote is also known to cause potentially serious variations in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.[33]

Research into the huichol natives of central-western Mexico, who have taken peyote regularly for an estimated 1500 years or more, found no evidence of chromosome damage in either men or women.[34]

Cultural significance

Huichol culture

The Huichol religion consists of four principal deities: the trinity of Corn, Blue Deer, Peyote, and the Eagle, all descended from their Sun God, "Tao Jreeku". Schaefer has interpreted this to mean that peyote is the soul of their religious culture and a visionary sacrament that opens a pathway to the other deities.[35]

In popular culture

Many authors, especially those of the Beat Generation, wrote about their experiences with peyote, or were otherwise influenced by the plant.

  • Ken Kesey, while working as a night watchman at a psychiatric ward, was peyote-inspired to write his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "'Peyote... inspired my chief narrator, because it was after choking down eight of the little cactus plants that I wrote the first three pages.' (As quoted in John Clark Pratt's "Introduction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", The Viking Critical Library, ed. John Clark Pratt, expanded edition, 1996)."[36]
  • Michael McClure wrote "Peyote Poem" after experimenting with peyote and other psychedelic drugs.[37]
  • The pilot episode of the sitcom Cuckoo features Cuckoo describing his experience on peyote
  • Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Howl", was partly inspired by his use of peyote on October 17, 1954 in his apartment at 755 Pine Street in San Francisco, when he had a vision of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and the Medical Arts buildings being transformed into the ancient Phoenician god Moloch.[38]
  • In the 1970s, the early writings of Carlos Castaneda sparked a resurgence of interest in using peyote as a psychoactive drug.[2][39]
  • The current A&E series Longmire features modern Native American use of peyote in its Season 3 storyline.[40]
  • In PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC versions of Grand Theft Auto V, peyote plants are featured as an easter egg in which taking peyote will turn players into various animals in form of hallucination.
  • In the 1996 animated film Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, when the titular characters are lost and dying of dehydration in the desert, Beavis partially consumes a nearby peyote button while under the assumption that all cacti contain water. Seconds later, he begins to hallucinate White Zombie imagery.
  • In the first season of the television series 90210, one of the main characters, Ethan Ward, is tricked into thinking he has taken peyote.
  • In the 2007 Sopranos Season Six episode "Kennedy and Heidi", Tony takes peyote with the recently deceased Christopher's Las Vegas girlfriend.
  • Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson described peyote usage in his auto-biographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A peyote button is also used on the Gonzo symbol.


United Nations

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.

However, this exemption would apply only if the peyote cactus were ever explicitly added to the Schedules of the Psychotropic Convention. Currently the Convention applies only to chemicals. Peyote and other psychedelic plants are neither listed nor regulated by the Convention.


Mescaline is listed as a Schedule III controlled substance under the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, but peyote is specifically exempt.[41] Possession of peyote plants and seeds not intended for consumption is legal. Canada allows the consumption of peyote in a religious context.[citation needed]

United States

Where there is exclusive federal jurisdiction or state law is not "racially" limited, peyote use by Native American Church members is legal and "racially" neutral in the United States.[42] This exemption from federal criminalization is as old as creation of federal law creating peyote related offenses.

This law has been codified as a statute in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, and made part of the common law in Peyote Way Church of God v. Thornburgh, (5th Cir. 1991);[43] it is also in administrative law at the 21 C.F.R. 1307.31. The C.F.R. part dealing with "SPECIAL EXEMPT PERSONS" states:

Section 1307.31 Native American Church. The listing of peyote as a controlled substance in Schedule I does not apply to the nondrug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church, and members of the Native American Church so using peyote are exempt from registration. Any person who manufactures peyote for or distributes peyote to the Native American Church, however, is required to obtain registration annually and to comply with all other requirements of law.

U.S. v. Boyll, 774 F.Supp. 1333 (D.N.M. 1991)[44] addresses this racial issue specifically and concludes:

For the reasons set out in this Memorandum Opinion and

Order, the Court holds that, pursuant to 21 C.F.R. § 1307.31 (1990), the classification of peyote as a Schedule I controlled substance, see 21 U.S.C. § 812(c), Schedule I(c)(12), does not apply to the importation, possession or use of peyote for 'bona fide' ceremonial use by members of the Native American Church,

regardless of race.

Following the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994, United States federal law (and many state laws) protects the harvest, possession, consumption and cultivation of peyote as part of "bona fide religious ceremonies" (the federal statute is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1996a, "Traditional Indian religious use of the peyote sacrament," exempting only use by Native American persons, while some state laws exempt any general "bona fide religious activity"). American jurisdictions enacted these specific statutory exemptions in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which held that laws prohibiting the use of peyote that do not specifically exempt religious use nevertheless do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Peyote is listed by the United States DEA as a Schedule I controlled substance.

See also


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  3. "Lophophora williamsii information from NPGS/GRIN". GRIN taxonomy for plants. Retrieved 2013-07-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  12. Martin, Terry (July 2008). "Stalking the wild Lophophora Part 1: Chihuahua and Coahuila" (PDF). Cactus and Succulent Journal. Cactus and Succulent Society of America. 80 (4): 181–186. doi:10.2985/0007-9367(2008)80[181:STWL]2.0.CO;2. ISSN 0007-9367. Retrieved 2013-09-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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Further reading

  • Calabrese, Joseph D. "The Therapeutic Use of Peyote in the Native American Church" Chapter 3 in Vol. 1 of Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogens as Treatments Michael J. Winkelman and Thomas B. Roberts (editors) (2007). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
  • Feeney, Kevin. "The Legal Basis for Religious Peyote Use." Chapter 13 in Vol 1 of Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogens as Treatments Michael J. Winkelman and Thomas B. Roberts (editors) (2007). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
  • Baggot, Matthew J. A Note on the Safety of Peyote when Used Religiously. Council on Spiritual Practices, 1996.
  • Rätsch,Christian, "The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, Enthnopharmacology and Its Applications" 1998/2005, Rochester, Vermont, Park Street Press, ISBN 978-0-89281-978-2

External links