Peyote: How (& Why) This Native American Cactus is Blowing Up

The Native American tribes have a rough history with European settlers and with peyote cactus this was no different.

The ceremonial use of peyote for spiritual practice began to spread in the mid-late 1800s across the plains tribes.

One by one tribes such as the Tonkawa, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, and Navajo started incorporating elements of peyote into their spiritual world.

Peyote eventually reached the Sioux, which were a tribe located on the northern plains in present day South Dakota.

On the Yankton Sioux reservation, their loss of culture, land, and identity gave rise to what became the peyote religion and the presence of the Native American Church in 1918.

Concerted efforts by the American government tried to destroy the practice and continued long into the 20th century [1].

The peyote cactus is a psychedelic plant used for thousands of years to connect people with a higher power and for healing in ritualistic and ceremonial settings.

The main psychoactive alkaloid in peyote buttons is mescaline, which is in the phenethylamine class of drugs different than LSD or psilocybin, but similar in effects.

Because it is native to the American west and is associated with native American cultures, it is growing in popularity… but this may be harmful.

We will dive deeply into the history of peyote usage, the experiences many people have, some of the downsides of peyote, and after you’ve read it fully some places to get started using these psychedelic substances in a legal setting.

What is Peyote?

A peyote trip refers to using peyote cactus and specifically the peyote buttons in order to induce psychedelic visions and realizations, which inform living.

The cactus is native to north and central Mexico as well as parts of Texas, which is one reason peyote spread in the way that it did.

The Huichol culture developed a religion, which was one of the first that used peyote as a sacrament to connect with their deities (Gods).

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The geographic location of the peyote plant. Despite this small area, tribal people and others use it across the world.

The Winding History of Peyote

Peyote is still growing in popularity as psychedelic science reduces the stigma associated with these safe and powerful compounds.

While not as popular as psilocybin or LSD, peyote does have a long history of usage that adds to the mystique.

A 2005 study near the Rio Grande river in Texas found radiocarbon evidence of peyote usage between 3780 and 3660 BC, which suggests peyote usage at least 5,500 years ago if not more [2].

This is the oldest dated record of peyote usage, but others exist throughout Mexico [3].

The Huichol people have maintained many of their traditional practices using peyote for an estimated 1,500 years.

In fact, members of the Huichol make a pilgrimage to a place called Wirikuta, which is a sacred site where the world was created.

On this pilgrimage the main objective is to harvest peyote for the entire year, which culminates in a giant ceremony stimulating visions, healing, and the ability to “speak to the Gods” [4].

It wasn’t until the last few hundred years that peyote reached the plains tribes.

By the time peyote reached the Navajo, Apache, and further north to the Sioux, the American west was becoming a battleground between tribes and American settlers.

As with much of the indigenous culture, the American government and anglo-settlers did their best to ban and destroy the use of peyote despite the positive effects it was having on reservation life (including reducing alcoholism).

In 1908 an Anglo by the name of William Johnson made it his mission to spread false information and eradicate the peyote cactus.

He and his team in the Bureau of Indian Affairs bought 176,400 peyote buttons and destroyed them.

They proceeded to convince Pacific Express and Wells Fargo to refuse shipments of peyote from Mexico up north [5].

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s when the poor treatment of indigenous peoples began to change the climate about peyote and other religious practices.

The cornerstone legal case in the United States was the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and again in a specific case called Peyote Way Church of God vs Thornburgh in 1991 [6].

Members of the Native American Church are exempt to legally use peyote today and there are hundreds of thousands of users.

Quanah Parker, Comanche chief, was one of the first to organize the Native American Church

Peyote Buttons: What Does the Science Say?

Indigenous people have been using psychedelic substances and other medicines for much longer than modern science has been available.

The clear advantages that tribal people saw, both spiritually, emotionally, and physically, are becoming more apparent in the scientific literature.

Peyote buttons are filled with a particular alkaloid called mescaline, which is the main psychoactive hallucinogen in the plant.

Unlike psilocybin and LSD, which have been analyzed in dozens if not hundreds of studies, peyote is a rarer and less commonly seen compound.

As a result, there isn’t as much scientific evidence, but what exists is compelling.

In one study from 1977, scientists recalled that peyote could be a useful compound for reducing rates of alcoholism and other drug dependencies [7].

This parallels many of the experiences of tribal people in the early to mid-1900s when alcoholism was rampant and adherents to the peyote religion provided relief.

A closer look at the peyote cactus suggests it interacts with the brain similar to classic psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin via the 5-HT 2A and similar receptors [8].

This may be a bit too scientific, but it suggests a very similar mechanism as traditional psychedelics that have been well researched to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety [9], provide mystical and profound experiences [10], and generally improve ones life.

Like the traditional psychedelics, the adverse reactions aren’t common either.

A 2007 study found no evidence of long-term cognitive problems related to peyote trips [11].

Another study found any mental side effects were related to people who already had mental health problems [12].

Microdosing Peyote: James Fadiman and Problem Solving

Despite the relatively few people who have done peyote versus traditional psychedelics, some compelling research on microdosing was done in 1966 by Dr. James Fadiman.

While he did not use peyote in his research, he did use the psychoactive ingredient mescaline [13].

Using a dose of 200 mg of mescaline sulphate (a moderate dose known as “microdosing”), Fadiman and researchers tested whether psychedelics could help increase problem solving skills among professionals including engineers, mathematicians, architects, physicists, and others.

The participants were told to bring a problem that they had been trying to solve for many months and a high percentage (44.4%) of participants had breakthrough solutions in the experiment.

While peyote buttons are chemically different (with far more alkaloids and interacting substances), it is interesting to see a study on mescaline show the enhancement of cognitive performance.

Spiritually Guided Peyote Trip

The value of scientifically acknowledged research is great for any substance including psychedelics.

There are traditional or ceremonial experiences, which provide a spiritual context that is still not fully understood when utilized with psychedelic experiences.

The substance alone can provide profound healing and learning, but sometimes having a more ceremonial setting can be even more beneficial.

After all, is it more comfortable to be in a sterile hospital environment conducting a study or with traditional shamanic drumming and blankets alongside a community of psychedelic explorers?

The native American tribes who use peyote all have their own religious and spiritual practices that will differ, but a recording from a Kiowa peyote ceremony in 1890 provides some context for what it is like.

An anthropologist named James Mooney provided the first ever written description of a peyote ceremony.

He described how the ceremony could last anywhere from 12 to 14 hours beginning in the night around 9:00 PM and sometimes ending as late as noon the next day.

Inside a tipi, a fire burns in the center of the participants as peyote buttons are passed from person to person.

Like many other ceremonies of this kind, musical singing, drumming, and rattles are used during the experience [14].

The modern incarnations of these peyote ceremonies will look similar with unique variations depending on the location, individual shamanic leaders, and personalities.

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The #1 Problem: The Sustainability of Peyote

There are numerous psychedelic compounds, which are freely growing and scalable for a wider audience, but peyote is not one of them.

Each peyote trip brings us one step closer to the extinction of the plant because of how long it takes to grow.

The peyote is extremely slow growing, which means it can take many years to cultivate new peyote whereas only one night to consume it.

Hamilton Morris, the host of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, suggested there is a huge problem of sustainability with peyote [15].

As these indigenous practices grow in popularity, the sustainability of the peyote cactus comes into question more and more.

Similar to the popularity of ayahuasca and how challenging it is to maintain a supply of the rare ayahuasca vine, conservation efforts must be considered for the peyote cactus.

One way to protect the peyote cactus and adherents to the Native American Church is for non-experienced psychedelic users to consider alternative options for ceremonies or experiences.

We have developed legal psilocybin and ayahuasca-based retreats called Schema, which you can find throughout the year.

While we do plan to organize peyote ceremonies with permission and coordination of the church, the peyote cactus is a struggling cultural species we can play our part to protect.

Peyote Cactus: A Tradition

Understanding about the problems associated with peyote cactus usage and the traditions of native American tribes can help to contextualize this compelling psychedelic substance.

Like many other psychedelics, the applications and potential value for healthy adults is great, but can only be realized when used with care.

The peyote trip is a long-standing ritual in some parts of the world and one that could help us reconnect to the world around us, heal ourselves, and produce our greatest creations for the world. As the Cherokee tribe like to say as a form of agreement — “Aho!


  1. Thomas Constantine Maroukis. Peyote and the Yankton Sioux: The Life and Times of Sam Necklace. University of Oklahoma Press. Pg. 89.
  4. Alfredo López Austin. Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist. U Pr of Co. Pg. 173.
  5. Thomas Constantine Maroukis. Peyote and the Yankton Sioux: The Life and Times of Sam Necklace. University of Oklahoma Press. Pg. 98.
  6. James W.H. McCord, Sandra McCord, and C. Suzanne Bailey. Criminal and Procedure for the Paralegal: A Systems Approach. Pg. 178-179.
  11. Halpern JH, Sherwood AR, Hudson JI, Yurgelun-Todd D, Pope HG Jr. “Psychological and cognitive effects of long-term peyote use among Native Americans”. Biol Psychiatry. 2005;58(8):624-631
  12. Bergman RL (1971). “Navajo peyote use: its apparent safetyAmer J Psychiat 128(6):695-699[51-55].
  14. Thomas Constantine Maroukis. Peyote and the Yankton Sioux: The Life and Times of Sam Necklace. University of Oklahoma Press. Pg. 103-104.