Citation metadata

Date: Oct. 1, 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Drug overview; Topic overview
Length: 6,243 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

Official Names: Mescaline (MES-cuh-leen or MES-cuh-lin), peyote (pay-OH-tee)
Street Names: Big chief, blue cap, buttons, cactus buttons, cactus head, chief, mesc, mescal, moon, topi
Drug Classification: Schedule I, hallucinogen

What Kind of Drug Is It?

Mescaline is a hallucinogen, which is a substance that produces hallucinations. Such hallucinations cause the user to experience strange sights, sounds, or other perceptions of things that are not actually present. Mescaline is a naturally occurring alkaloid that is produced by certain types of cactus plants. The best known of these plants is the peyote cactus. The natural ingredients that cause hallucinations in people can also be produced artificially in a laboratory.

For many thousands of years, various Native American groups (in the present United States and Mexico) have consumed peyote in religious rituals. In fact, some native peoples still do. They believe that the hallucinations they experience are visions, or messages from spirits who can help them understand themselves and their place in the world. During the twentieth century, mescaline was studied as a possible treatment for mental illness, but no medical use was found for it.

Some abuse of mescaline as a recreational drug occurred during the last half of the twentieth century, but not in any widespread way. (Recreational users are those who take a drug for the high it produces, not for any medical reason.) Peyote use is not widespread because both natural and artificial forms of it are expensive and hard to find. Much of what may be sold on the street as "mescaline" is actually some other substance that is probably more dangerous than the real thing.


Mescaline is considered the oldest known hallucinogenic drug. Its strange qualities were most likely discovered accidentally, by ancient people who were experimenting to find out which plants made good food. Mescaline was not a good food. In fact, it usually causes people to have intense stomachaches if they eat it.

The History of an Ancient Plant

Despite causing pain and vomiting, however, mescaline-containing plants rarely cause death. Intense, colorful, often terrifying hallucinations follow consumption, lasting for many hours. These vivid pictures and sounds, which exist only in the user's mind, appear to be completely real to the mescaline user. The people who lived in regions where mescaline-producing plants grew believed that the hallucinations were messages from spirits and gods, so the plants became very important in their culture.

Archaeologists have discovered evidence suggesting that peyote was used in sacred rituals some 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists in Coahuila, Mexico, found a skeleton with a beaded necklace of dried peyote buttons that dates back 1,000 years. In Peru, a carving of a peyote cactus on a stone tablet dates back to 1300 bce. One archaeological dig in Shumla Cave in Texas uncovered dried, mescaline-containing plant matter that appeared to date back to 5,000 bce.

The earliest written information about mescaline use comes from Fray Bernardino Sahagun (1499-1590), a Spanish missionary who lived among the Indians of Mexico and studied their culture. He stated that the buttons of the peyote plant were sometimes eaten when fighting was likely, because it took away sensations of hunger, thirst, and fear. Dr. Francisco Hernandez, the personal doctor to King Phillip II of Spain, was the first to describe the peyote plant itself. He noted that in addition to peyote buttons being used for spiritual purposes, the root of the plant could be ground up and applied as a paste for the relief of pain in the joints.

When the Spanish began to take control of Mexico in the 1500s, they tried to stamp out the use of peyote and other mescaline-producing plants. Most Spanish people of that era were devout Catholics and regarded mescaline use as a pagan ritual. The term paganism is used to describe non-Christian religions that worship many gods. The Spanish did not accept paganism and believed that those native peoples who used peyote and related plants were calling on evil spirits. By 1720, a law had been passed in Mexico outlawing the use of peyote. Still, followers of the peyote cults continued to conduct their ceremonies in secret.

Nineteenth-Century Uses

As European settlements spread across North America, so did the use of mescaline-producing cacti. The first recorded use of peyote in the United States was in 1760. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), some Native American tribes were very familiar with the plants and had developed rituals around their use. The Kiowa and Comanche Indians drew attention for their peyote ceremonies around the year 1880. They had probably learned about peyote when they carried out raids on the Mescalero Indians of northern Mexico.

The Kiowa and Comanche Indians may have embraced the peyote rituals because such practices seemed to offer them some hope of holding on to their traditional way of life. During this era, the Indians' lifestyle was being drastically changed as the U.S. government began forcing the native peoples on to reservations. Quahadi Comanche chief Quanah Parker (c. 1845-1911) was one of the first people to mix elements of the Christian religion with traditional peyote ceremonies. Parker was the son of a Comanche man and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians as a child.

In 1918, the Native American Church (NAC) was founded, giving an official framework to the ritual use of peyote in religious ceremonies. At the same time, a long debate began about whether or not it should be legal for certain churches to use substances that are normally illegal. The debate continues to unfold. For Native Americans, the issue is one of religious freedom.

During the late nineteenth century, the Western world began to take a scientific interest in hallucinogenic substances. In 1897, German chemist Arthur Heffter (1859-1925) became the first person to identify mescaline as the essential chemical in peyote that caused hallucinations. It was the first hallucinogenic compound to be synthesized, or removed from its parent plant in that way.

From Native Cultures to Modern Use

Shamans, or medicine men, in native cultures had long used peyote and other mescaline-producing plants to treat a variety of ailments, both physical and spiritual. Since the effects of these substances seemed to create states similar to insanity, Western scientists hoped that they might be somehow useful in treating mental illness. They also thought they might get a better understanding of mental illness if they could learn more about the ways in which hallucinogenic substances alter the brain's activity. For many years, serious research was done on mescaline and other hallucinogens, both natural and human-made. Even as research went on, some states passed laws to make the use of peyote and related substances illegal. In 1927, New Mexico was the first state to do so.

Mescaline was rarely used outside native cultures until the mid-twentieth century, when British novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) wrote a book called The Doors of Perception, which described his personal experiments with peyote. Huxley's book, published in 1953, was popular reading during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when experimentation with drugs was widespread. Timothy Leary (1920-1996), a professor at Harvard University, also undertook many personal experiments with mescaline and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a human-made hallucinogen. Leary's writings further promoted interest in hallucinogens, especially on college campuses. Street use of these substances became more common at that time.

Many people believed that research on hallucinogenic drugs, or psychedelics as they were also called, had gone on for long enough, and that no helpful information had been learned. However, the abuse of psychedelics was spreading, with dangerous results. Often users had what were called "bad trips," or experiences that were depressing or terrifying. It was also reported that users might have "flashbacks," or recurrences of their drug experiences even when they were not taking the drug. Organizations concerned with public health and safety warned that heavy use of hallucinogens, including any form of mescaline, could result in damage to blood vessels, convulsions, and permanent brain damage.

Laws Ban Hallucinogens

In 1967, the U.S. government passed a law that made hallucinogens illegal throughout the country. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act defined peyote, mescaline, and every other hallucinogen as a Schedule I drug, meaning that they have no known medical use. At that time, legal research on mescaline came to an end. Street use of peyote and other forms of mescaline declined sharply and was virtually nonexistent at the end of the twentieth century. Whether peyote and other hallucinogenic plants can be used legally as part of the religious ceremonies of Native Americans is still hotly debated.

What Is It Made Of?

Mescaline-producing plants grow in only a few areas of the world. The word "mescaline" refers to the active ingredient in the plants that causes the hallucinogenic effects. However, it is often used as a name for the plants as a whole, or for the parts of the plants that are eaten, in whatever way they may be prepared. The two main sources of mescaline are both members of the plant family Cactaceae. They are the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi). The peyote cactus is by far the best known of the mescaline plants, so much so that the word peyote is often used to mean any type of mescaline.

The true peyote cactus is a gray-green or blue-green plant. It grows close to the ground and looks something like a small cushion divided up into sections that are called podarea. The podarea are arranged around a center piece that has a woolly look to it, as it is made up of tufted hairs called trichomes. Unlike other cacti, the plant does not have sharp, prickly spines to protect itself.

The peyote cactus grows naturally in an area stretching from southern Texas to southern Mexico. There are a few variations of Lophophora williamsii, including Echinocactus williamsii and Lophophora echinata var. diffusa. A close relative of peyote, the cactus Lophophora diffusa grows only in the dry region of Queretaro, Mexico, in the central part of the country. It is yellow-green in color, has a fleshier body than the peyote cactus, and lacks the well-defined podarea.

Slow Growing

The peyote is one of the slowest-growing of all cacti. A plant is not considered mature until it is about thirteen years old. If it reaches the age of thirty, it will still be only about the size of a baseball. The Native Americans call a plant of this size and age "Father Peyote" or "Grandfather Peyote." Usually, a peyote cactus must grow for at least four years before it will produce even one "button," or dime-sized section on its top. It is the button that is cut off and eaten for the hallucinogenic effects. The name of the plant is thought to come from either a Nahuatl word, pi-youtl, which means "silk cocoon" or "caterpillar cocoon," or from the Mexican word piule, which simply means "hallucinogenic plant."

The San Pedro cactus looks quite different from the peyote. It does have prickly spines, and it grows in tall columns, sometimes reaching as high as twenty feet. It originated in the mountain regions of Peru and Ecuador, but has become widespread, because it is often sold as an ornamental plant. Like the peyote cactus, the San Pedro has some close relatives within its Trichocereus family that contain hallucinogenic compounds.

Numbers Declining

Although these psychoactive cacti all contain between forty to sixty alkaloids, or nitrogen-containing compounds, mescaline is the only alkaloid among them that is known to cause hallucinations. The amount of mescaline in a cactus depends on the maturity of the plant. On average, a peyote cactus might contain about 4 percent mescaline. It can be extracted from the plant, and in its pure form, it is crystalline.

Mescaline can also be artificially produced in a laboratory. Pure mescaline, either extracted or manufactured, is extremely rare, however, because it is very expensive to produce. Therefore, almost all mescaline used is in the form of peyote buttons, or material from one of the other mescaline-producing plants. The number of peyote cacti is declining, in part because of the development of roads and buildings in the places where the plants grow naturally.

How Is It Taken?

Usually, dried buttons from the peyote cactus are chewed up and swallowed in order to get the mescaline into the body. Users eat from twelve to thirty of these pods at a time. Sometimes the buttons are brewed in hot water, which is then consumed as a tea. Dried peyote buttons are sometimes ground into a powdered form, which can be put in capsules. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it takes a dose of about 0.3-0.5 grams of mescaline to produce hallucinations. That would be the amount contained in approximately 5 grams of dried peyote. It takes about 0.5 grams of synthetic mescaline to produce hallucinations, but the cost of producing this substance is so high that it would cost between $50 and $100 for each use.

Therefore, mescaline is almost nonexistent in the world of illegal drugs, as there is very little market for it. Authorities report that most tablets or capsules sold as "synthetic mescaline" have a very small amount of real mescaline in them. Usually they have been mixed with another substance, often phencyclidine (PCP), LSD, or ecstasy (MDMA). All of these drugs can be much more dangerous than true mescaline.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

Native peoples believed that physical illness was a reflection of a spiritual problem. Their shamans, or medicine men, treated the body and spirit together in ways that blended spiritual beliefs and practices with herbal remedies. Those who came from the peyote cultures considered peyote to be a powerful medicine. It was used in a variety of ways, from grinding the root to make a paste for sore joints, to using the buttons to help combat depression and alcoholism. The use of alcohol became a serious problem for many Native Americans after their way of life was disrupted by white settlers, who forced them off their lands and on to reservations. The alcohol brought by white settlers was also new to native peoples, so their bodies were unaccustomed and more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

Western researchers became interested in the possible uses of mescaline as soon as they became aware of it. By the late 1800s, people were already working to find ways that mescaline and other hallucinogens might be useful in understanding and treating insanity. By the 1960s, interest in the possible beneficial uses of mind-altering drugs was at its peak. It was hoped that mescaline, along with human-made hallucinogens such as LSD, might be able to treat depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and other mental illnesses. Yet, no definite use for them was ever found, and all legal research came to a halt in 1970 when the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act ruled that such substances have no known use in medicine. Nevertheless, during the 1990s there was some renewed interest in studying the effects of peyote after testimony was given before the U.S. Congress. At that time, advocates of peyote talked about its use in treating alcoholism among the Native American population.

Usage Trends

The use of peyote was well established among the Aztecs and other native peoples in the New World long before the arrival of the first Europeans. Spanish authorities in Mexico outlawed peyote in 1720, but its use continued to be widespread, although the rituals were conducted in secret. Use of peyote extended northward during the 1800s. It increased dramatically when Native Americans were being removed from their traditional lands and resettled on government reservations. Shortly after the start of the twentieth century, the NAC was founded, which incorporated peyote use with Christian and other religious beliefs. It remains active to this day. In modern times, the Huichol and Tarahumara Indians in Mexico still use peyote in traditional ceremonies.

Experimentation and Research on Mescaline

Outside of Native American religious ceremonies, there was little use of mescaline by anyone for many years, except for those involved in research. However, that situation changed during the mid-twentieth century. The writings of novelist Aldous Huxley, Harvard professor Timothy Leary, and anthropologist Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998), all of whom experimented with peyote and related substances, sparked a wider interest in these drugs and the vivid visions they cause. Castaneda wrote several books supposedly describing his experiences with a Mexican medicine man, who introduced him to an otherworldly being called "Mescalito." Mescalito was said to give insight to those seeking his guidance through peyote. Castaneda detailed many strange and terrifying visions, but in his later works, he downplayed the importance of using hallucinogens to gain greater spiritual awareness.

At the height of the drug subculture of the 1960s and 1970s, there was some street use of peyote and other forms of mescaline. However, much of what was sold as mescaline was probably something else since the natural and artificial forms of the drug have always been difficult to obtain and are quite expensive when they are available. Peyote is one of the slowest-growing plants. Plus, its natural habitat is being threatened due to continued development of land for building and cattle grazing. Therefore, it is unlikely to become more plentiful. In Texas, it is cultivated legally and protected under the supervision of Texas legal authorities for use within the NAC.

A report by the DEA revealed how little peyote and mescaline are used as street drugs. From 1980 to 1987, about 19.4 pounds (9 kilograms) of peyote were taken in drug raids. In contrast, 15 million pounds (7 million kilograms) of marijuana were confiscated during the same timeframe. Furthermore, no illegal trafficking of peyote was reported at all. After 1998, mescaline showed up infrequently on government reports, usually being included in a category such as "other hallucinogens," which refers to hallucinogens other than LSD. The "2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)" reported that overall hallucinogen use among individuals 12 years of age and older has remained relatively constant from 2002 to 2014 at somewhere between 0.4 and 0.5 percent. (The vast majority of that usage is attributed to the hallucinogen ecstasy.) The age group with which hallucinogen use is most popular includes those between 18 and 25, where usage fell from 1.9 percent in 2002 to 1.4 percent in 2014. Among youths aged 12 to 17, usage fell from 1.0 percent in 2002 to 0.5 percent in 2014, and among those aged 26 and over, it remained relatively constant at about 0.3 percent.

Effects on the Body

Peyote buttons taste very bitter and unpleasant, as do the teas and powders made from them and other psychoactive cacti. Frequently, the human body's first response to them is intense stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. Approximately thirty to sixty minutes after the substance is eaten, its effects on the brain begin to occur. Hallucinations are most intense for approximately two hours, but the effects of the drug may last for as long as ten to twelve hours. Mescaline's other effects can include trembling, sweating, dizziness, numbness, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, dilated pupils, and anxiety. It can cause contractions of the intestines and the uterus, which could be dangerous for pregnant women taking the drug.

Much of what is known about how hallucinogens, including mescaline, work on the brain was learned during research done on LSD in the 1960s and 1970s. The chemical structure of these types of drugs is similar to that of serotonin, a naturally occurring substance within the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or chemical that passes signals from one nerve cell to another in order to relay messages to the brain. Serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter, but it is especially important because it regulates many of the others.

Playing with the Senses

Hallucinogens seem to disrupt the normal interaction between nerve cells and neurotransmitters within the brain. This causes the sight, smell, sound, and feel of things in the real world to become strangely warped. Emotions may also be wildly exaggerated or out-of-place due to the chemical changes being caused in the brain. Rapid mood swings are common, with users laughing for no apparent reason, only to become terrified the next moment. Emotions may seem to be layered or to come in waves. Someone who has taken a hallucinogen may feel a heightened awareness of all kinds of things, and senses may become confused.

The drug-induced state of any hallucinogen is commonly referred to as a trip. Trips can be good or bad. People have frequently reported trips that make them feel happy, stimulated, or more aware of themselves and their place in the world. This is one reason why researchers have thought that psychedelic drugs might have a valid medical use in treating mental and emotional illness.

But not every trip is good. For various reasons, which are not well-understood, people who take hallucinogens may instead experience a "bad trip." In a bad trip situation, hallucinations can be extremely terrifying and realistic. Feelings of unbearable sadness and anxiety may consume the user. Users may feel completely out of control, that they are going insane, or that they are about to die. They may have false feelings of power and attempt to do things that are dangerous. Or, they may become fearful about the frightening hallucinations they see and then panic, endangering themselves trying to escape their visions.

Is It Really Mescaline?

It is important to realize that anything sold on the street as "mescaline" may in fact be mixed with other drugs or substances. Or, it may be completely made up of some other psychedelic drug or unknown substance. True mescaline is rare. Common additives to false mescaline tablets are LSD and PCP. Sometimes called "angel dust," PCP can cause extreme fear and aggressive behavior, as well as convulsions and coma. These types of side effects would rarely be caused by mescaline without the addition of another drug.

Some drugs are known as mescaline analogs. They are made in a laboratory and are similar in chemical structure to mescaline, but far more dangerous. These include the "designer drugs" MDA and MDMA, or ecstasy. Other dangerous amphetamines and methamphetamines are also classified as mescaline analogs. Any of these manufactured drugs may be added to or sold as genuine mescaline, but they are even more dangerous than the real substance would be. Side effects cannot be predicted or understood when additives are unknown. Plus, there is no way of really knowing what is in a tablet or capsule of something that is sold as "peyote" or "mescaline" on the street.

Lingering Problems in Users

A true overdose of genuine mescaline or peyote is rare, although even a low dose of the substance can leave users feeling very ill. It is not considered as addictive as many drugs are, including heroin and cocaine. If people develop a habit of using drugs like heroin or cocaine, their bodies will go through withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop. That means they will feel very ill because their bodies have developed a physical need for the drug. This is not the case with mescaline, but that does not mean there are no consequences for using it.

When a mescaline trip ends, there is a dip in serotonin activity in the brain. This may lead to a condition called dysphoria, or a general feeling of restlessness, anxiety, and depression. When people use hallucinogens frequently, they will develop a tolerance, meaning that they need larger and larger doses to get the same effect. This tolerance carries over from one psychedelic drug to another. In other words, a heavy user of mescaline would also have a high tolerance to LSD. The body's level of tolerance to the substance will revert to normal levels, however, if use is discontinued.

Psychedelic use can potentially lead to two long-term mental health problems. One is known as hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD), more commonly known as flashbacks. In a flashback, the user enters hallucinogenic states even though he or she has not taken a recent dose of the drug. Long-term use of hallucinogens can also lead to a condition called persistent or drug-induced psychosis. This occurs when former users fall into long-lasting states similar to psychosis. They may be severely depressed, experience mood swings, and have distorted visions and other hallucinations. These symptoms can go on for years, and may occur in people who have no previous history of mental illness.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Drug users sometimes combine drugs to obtain different or more intense effects. "Love flipping" or taking a "love trip" is the practice of taking mescaline and ecstasy at the same time. Ecstasy is a mescaline analog, or an artificially produced drug with chemical similarities to mescaline. It has very dangerous side effects, which could be made even more extreme by taking it at the same time as mescaline.

Treatment for Habitual Users

There are no formally recognized treatments for hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD) and drug-induced psychosis. People experiencing flashbacks may become confused and fearful about the renewed hallucinations. They often feel they have suffered brain damage and are losing their minds. Psychotherapy may help these patients to deal with the episodes. Antidepressants may also be useful for those suffering from HPPD and drug-induced psychosis. Users should consult their doctors to determine the best course of treatment.


Mescaline can have serious long-term effects on users. HPPD and drug-induced psychosis can require extended treatment. This can affect job performance and personal relationships. People who had psychological problems before taking mescaline may find those problems become worse after taking the drug. Normal social functioning is certainly made more difficult by the hallucinations, confusion, and strong emotions that users may experience. Anxiety and fear caused by a bad trip can lead to poor judgment and dangerous acts that could endanger the user or other people.

Even if a user does not experience a bad trip or have HPPD or drug-induced psychosis, there are still serious consequences that go along with using mescaline, peyote, and the other psychoactive cacti. This is because they are illegal. The DEA has defined peyote as a Schedule I hallucinogen, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Using any Schedule I substance, including peyote or mescaline, can lead to a long prison sentence. Even members of the NAC can be prosecuted if they use peyote outside their religious ceremonies. Although the federal guidelines refer to the peyote cactus, L. Williamsii, the penalties are the same for anyone buying other psychoactive cacti with the intention of extracting or using their active ingredients.

Legal consequences can be even more severe for U.S. citizens if they travel to other countries. Using, buying, selling, or carrying any type of drug, including mescaline or peyote, outside of the United States could result in interrogation and imprisonment for weeks, months, and perhaps even for life. Every country has its own laws and punishments for drug trafficking and use. Some countries make no distinctions between a person carrying a small amount of an illegal substance for personal use and someone acting as a large-scale drug trafficker. In some countries, even the most minor drug offenses are punishable by death.

The Law

The legal history of mescaline and its primary source, peyote, is long and somewhat complicated. The ban on its use for recreational purposes is clear. It is classified as a Schedule I hallucinogen, meaning that there is no medical reason it may be possessed, sold, or used. Doing so may result in severe penalties, including imprisonment and heavy fines. However, peyote is a long-established part of the religious rituals of Native Americans. The founding of the NAC in the early twentieth century gave support to this practice by making peyote use part of an established religion, rather than just a cultural tradition. Declaring peyote use illegal in its religious setting puts the federal drug laws in opposition to First Amendment rights that guarantee freedom to practice one's religion. Because of these conflicts, the legal status of peyote use by Native Americans has changed several times since it first became an issue during the American Civil War era.

Religious Rights and Mescaline Regulations

New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the use of peyote, doing so in the 1920s. This law was changed in 1959 to allow Native Americans to use the substance during their religious ceremonies. Most states had no laws against peyote use or possession even into the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, dried buttons from the peyote cactus were available for purchase through mail-order catalogs. This sort of free marketing of the psychoactive cacti and their components slowed drastically after peyote was declared illegal throughout the United States in 1967. This decision was strengthened by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970. The passage of the act identified peyote as a Schedule I hallucinogen. At that point, buying, selling, or using it became a serious crime for anyone except a member of the NAC participating in a legitimate religious ceremony. Even members of the NAC could be held accountable to the law for using peyote in any other setting or distributing it to people outside the church.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was adopted. It was intended to protect the religious traditions of Native Americans. However, almost from the start, there were many challenges to it. In 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Employment Division v. Smith. Ultimately, the court ruled that religious use of peyote by Native Americans was not protected by the First Amendment. Many religious groups and civil liberties activists protested this decision.

Eventually, the ruling was contradicted by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments (AIRFA). AIRFA, which was amended again in 1996, protected the rights of American Indians to use peyote in traditional, ceremonial ways in all of the fifty states. It states that the "use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any State."

In Texas, where the peyote cactus grows, the state government supervises its cultivation and hires a crew of experienced people, called peyoteros, to properly harvest, dry, and distribute the buttons to Native American churches. Many complex questions have come up about this conflict between enforcing drug laws and protecting freedom of religion. The various states continue to try to sort out these complexities, as they make their own laws and decisions about the transportation, possession, and use of peyote.

Penalties for Nonreligious Use

Aside from the exemptions made for members of the NAC, possession of peyote, mescaline, or any other Schedule I substance can result in a prison sentence ranging from one to twenty years, and fines ranging between one thousand to several thousand dollars. Selling peyote or mescaline, or possessing with the intent to sell, can result in fines ranging from $250,000 to several million dollars and prison sentences ranging from five years to life, depending on the circumstances. In Mexico, peyote is illegal even for use in religious ceremonies. In Canada, peyote and mescaline are restricted, and possession or use may lead to prison sentences of up to three years and fines of up to $4,000. Penalties for trafficking the drug are even more severe. The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances declared an international ban on mescaline.

Key Terms

nitrogen-containing substances found in plants
scientists who dig up and study the remains of ancient cultures
drugs that can cause hallucinations
mind-altering; a psychoactive substance alters the user's mental state or changes one's behavior
a substance that helps spread nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another
an intense and usually very visual experience produced by an hallucinogenic drug
pronounced sy-KOH-sis; a severe mental disorder that often causes hallucinations and makes it difficult for people to distinguish what is real from what is imagined
the treatment of emotional problems by a trained therapist using a variety of techniques to improve a patient's outlook on life
planting and tending with the intention of harvesting

The Native American Church (NAC)

The Ghost Dance religious movement began in 1869 but quickly died out. It was revived in 1889 by Wovoka (c. 1858-1932), a Piute medicine man, who had a vision. In his dream, Jesus Christ came to help Native Americans save their way of life, which was rapidly being destroyed by white settlers and the U.S. government. The dance was supposed to bring back the dead, hence the name Ghost Dance. Leaders from many tribes were interested in learning about the religious movement. Its rituals included five nights of dancing and intense shaking. Those taking part in the dance would enter a trance-like state. Dancers soon began wearing specially made shirts that they believed would protect them from the white man's bullets.

Representatives of the U.S. government were concerned that the Ghost Dance movement would lead to uprisings and tried to outlaw it. In 1890, in a tragic incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the U.S. Army massacred more than 200 Sioux, including men, women, and children. The Ghost Dance shirts offered no protection against the army's guns. After the incident, the Ghost Dance movement faded.

Forced to live on reservations, many Native Americans experienced poverty and depression. Some turned to alcoholism. In 1918, the Native American Church (NAC) was established in an effort to pull together the scattered remains of the native cultures. Following in the tradition of earlier Native American leaders such as Quanah Parker, John Wilson, and John Rave, the NAC combined Christian beliefs with traditional rituals. The establishment of the NAC was also strongly supported by James Mooney, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1920, NAC membership was made up of 13,000 members from 30 tribes. By 2005, it had grown to 300,000 members, including some people who are not of Native American ancestry.

Peyote rituals differ from one chapter of the church to another, but they are usually very structured. A typical service might be held in a tepee, constructed over an altar made of clay. Often there is ritual purification and confession of sins, and a period of silence. After the peyote is consumed, there may be a prolonged period of chanting and dancing. Sometimes, this period is so long that the people involved become exhausted when the effects of the peyote wear off. Ceremonies may be held for special occasions or on a monthly basis. A person called the Roadman leads them. The ritual itself is sometimes called the Peyote Road.

Seeing Sounds and Hearing Colors

Users of hallucinogens report that they "see sounds" or "hear colors." This phenomenon of blended sensory experiences is called synesthesia (sinn-ess-THEE-zhuh). Although other hallucinogens may play strange tricks with the appearance of reality, mescaline seems to have the strongest tendency to conjure up vividly colored visions that have little or nothing to do with the user's actual environment.

Peyote Law in Individual States

The role of peyote in the ancient religions of Native Americans makes for a confusing legal situation in modern times. Federal law allows the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies, but each state government has documented its own interpretation of the law. In Oregon and Arizona, the law exempts use with "sincere religious intent." Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Mexico require that users must be "members of a bona fide religious organization" in order to be exempt. Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming require that users be members of the NAC. Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin state that the peyote must be used "only within an NAC ceremony." Idaho and Texas require that in addition to NAC membership, users must be of Native American descent. In Kansas, the law adds that prisoners are not protected by the exemption, even if they are members of the NAC.

Texas requires people to be at least 25 percent Native American. This situation raises various issues, including the fact that some tribes are not recognized officially by both state and federal authorities. Also, there is a controversy about what percentage of Native American ancestry should be required or if any should be required at all. Such issues remind people of the so-called Jim Crow laws, now struck down, that once determined who was considered to be African American and who was not.

Another controversial issue is whether a non-native person can become a member of the NAC church. Some chapters of the NAC allow non-Native Americans to join, while others do not. Non-Native Americans who join the NAC are not protected from federal law even if state laws would allow them exemption. Both state and federal laws on this topic continue to be challenged, reconsidered, and changed. Cases involving the law and its exemptions often go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2646400034