..Cactus & Conquistadors
When the Spanish
Conquistadors hit the New World in the 16th Century, they hoped
to find gold and glory during their adventures in the Americas.
lots of the former and little of the latter along the way, and
all kinds of stuff they hadn’t counted on at all, including corn,
tobacco, potatoes, chocolate, and a strange vision-inducing plant
used by natives as a religious sacrament and revered almost as
the problems started.
Spaniards had their own ideas about God and sacraments and wanted
to share them with their new subjects. And they did — every
chance they got.
And the plant,
which the natives called “peyotl,” turned into a major
point of contention.
And, to this
day, it’s pretty much stayed that way.
What all the
excitement’s been about is a small, spineless cactus (known botanically
as Lophophora williamsii) which grows in the deserts of
Mexico and the American Southwest. When the crown is sliced off
and dried, it forms a hard, brownish disc known as a “button,”
which is chewed for its hallucinogenic properties.
were chewed for religious purposes in Mexico centuries before
the Conquistadors even knew Mexico existed. Early tales of peyote
rituals among the Aztec and Toltec Indians date ceremonial use
back some 3,000 years.
— and other “divine” plants, including psilocybin
mushrooms, morning glory seeds, and datura — were employed for
the purposes of healing, divining the future, and producing visions
during sacred rites.
believed to be a god-powerful medicine, capable of giving sight
to the blind and healing incurable diseases. But to the Spaniards,
it was the first American “drug problem.”
..The First ‘War on Drugs’
quickly outlawed “peyotism,” which they linked with
cannibalism and witchcraft, and enacted the first set of anti-drug
laws in the Western Hemisphere, all aimed at wiping out Indian
use of the plant.
— to a point. Over the next four centuries, they successfully
drove the indigenous peyote-based religion far underground. But
it refused to stay there.
American Civil War, peyote use began spreading north from Mexico
on a large scale. Indian prophets, such as Quanah Parker and
John Wilson, carried a Christianized version of the ancient ritual
to more than fifty American tribes, including the Cheyenne, Shawnee,
Blackfoot, and Sioux, and as far north as Canada. Their teachings
blended traditional peyote chants and meditation with prayer
and belief in Jesus.
In 1918 a group
of peyotists formed the Native American Church to preserve peyote
rituals and provide for continued sacramental use of the plant.
Still, nonbelievers fought back.
And even though
laws in 11 states eventually sought to ban religious use of peyote,
federal courts have affirmed the right to sacramental use by
Native American members of the 250,000-member church.
continue to be mounted, strengthened by a 1990 ruling by the
U.S. Supreme Court, affirming the right of states to control
ritual peyote use.
ritual centers on a belief in a Great Spirit who created the
universe and observes what happens, where, and to whom — everywhere
believe the Spirit placed its own divine powers in the cactus
and that, by eating its buttons, a believer can absorb that power
and experience that spiritual force.
During a peyote
ritual, which commonly involves sitting and staring into a large
fire inside a tent for 12 hours or more, participants chew and
swallow from 2-20 buttons, and sometimes as many as 30.
The plant produces
a trance-like state, which is intensified by a pulsating drumbeat
or by the chanting and prayers of participants absorbed in the
itself is believed to bestow special powers of healing and insight
onto participants, including the ability to glimpse beneath the
form and beyond the description of everyday, “consensual”
reality to the unity of energy and consciousness underlying all
themselves and purge themselves of everyday toxins, participants
often undergo an extended period of fasting, meditation, and
the buttons isn’t easy or palatable, no matter how prepared a
In fact, peyote
often triggers vomiting, which is considered to be a further
act of purification, necessary for the Spirit’s entry into the
..Actions & Effects
more than fifty psychoactive ingredients, the most powerful of
which is mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine).
the Mescalero Apaches, mescaline was first isolated from the
peyote cactus in 1896 and independently synthesized in 1918.
As one of the
first hallucinogens to be reproduced in the lab, mescaline became
the center of scientific interest in the early 1900s and was
used in the experimental treatment of alcoholism, mental illness,
and other disorders.
In doses of
200-500 mg (about 10-20 buttons), mescaline triggers increased
heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure and dilation
of the pupils.
and reflexes are reduced, and the skin may feel dry and itchy.
Peak effects hit 2-3 hours after ingestion, and run their course
in about 12 hours.
mescaline are best known for their unique hallucinogenic properties,
which many users report as less disorienting — and hence more
manageable — than LSD and other synthetic psychedelics.
effects can include rapid changes in mood, feelings of empathy
and kinship with others, kaleidoscopic perceptual changes, and
deeply moving, even profound, introspective spiritual experiences.
to describe is how, exactly, the drugs exert their unusual effects.
is about 4,000 times less potent — microgram for microgram —
than LSD, both drugs work in similar ways, by temporarily tilting
the distribution and action in the brain of such neurotransmitters
as dopamine and serotonin, although their exact mechanism of
action remains unclear.
..Risks & Realities
As peyote use
has evolved over the years, non-sacramental users have faced
two potential dangers.
the risk of bad trips, which mostly center on a fear of dying
or loss of control.
can be administered in extreme cases, but the only way to totally
eliminate the possibility of panic with a drug as powerful as
peyote is to avoid using it altogether.
A second risk
linked to mescaline derives from the reality of street-drug economics.
That’s because it’s so expensive to synthesize the drug that
other drugs are often substituted — usually LSD, PCP, or amphetamine-based
is identifiable by its noxious taste, which can trigger a vomiting
that’s more relief than curse. And mescaline has a revolting
taste of its own — and a sky-high price tag reflecting the scarcity
drawbacks — price, taste, laws — haven’t stopped peyote and
It was true
to believers 400 years ago, and it seems no less true today:
Conquistadors come and go, but peyote endures forever.
And so, some
users might tell you, does the aftertaste.