Peyote has been used for healing and spiritual connection for millennia, but is it legal? Here’s all you need to know.
TL;DR: Peyote is a culturally significant cactus with therapeutic potential. It has endured suppression and remains revered by indigenous communities and the Native American Church. Research suggests therapeutic value, but more studies are needed. Legal status varies, but religious use is protected. Conservation efforts aim to preserve peyote and its habitats through programs, habitat restoration, and controlled cultivation. Preserving peyote ensures its cultural heritage and ecological importance.
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a small, green, spineless cactus found in northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, holds deep cultural and ceremonial significance for indigenous American communities that spans thousands of years. Despite the efforts of Spanish conquerors to suppress this tradition starting in the 16th century, it has managed to endure to the present day.
The profound, dream-like visions induced by peyote are revered by indigenous American tribes and members of the Native American Church (NAC) — a syncretic pan-Indian religious movement that combines traditional indigenous American beliefs and practices with Christian elements. They believe that without this sacred plant, life would lack meaning and purpose.
Following the suggestions of ancient tradition, research has shown that mescaline may be of therapeutic value. However, it's important to note that the current evidence is based on research that cannot establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship. To draw more definitive conclusions, it is necessary to replicate these promising findings through rigorous controlled clinical trials.
During traditional peyote ceremonies, participants either chew on the disc-shaped buttons found on the top of the cactus to release its psychoactive compounds or prepare botanical infusions, such as peyote cactus tea, using these buttons.
Although peyote contains more than 50 different bioactive alkaloids, including phenethylamine and isoquinoline alkaloids, it is the presence of the classical psychedelic compound mescaline that produces its psychedelic properties.
Exploration of mescaline began in the late 1800s and quickly advanced in the early 20th century as scientists studied its chemical makeup and effects on the mind.
In 1897, Arthur Heffter, a renowned German chemist, successfully isolated mescaline from peyote, leading to the identification of this psychedelic compound. Another notable contribution came in 1919 from Ernst Späth, an Austrian chemist, who became the first person to synthesize mescaline.
One notable influence was Aldous Huxley, who beautifully described his experiences with mescaline in his famous essay "The Doors of Perception," sparking interest in its potential for creativity and spiritual exploration.
Researchers delved further into mescaline's properties, conducting preclinical studies and pilot clinical trials to investigate its potential benefits in understanding psychosis and treating schizophrenia.
However, as the 1950s and 1960s unfolded, a new psychedelic, LSD, gained immense popularity due to its increased potency, shorter duration of action, and affordability compared to mescaline. Consequently, mescaline gradually lost its previous prominence and popularity.
Although pure mescaline is now less commonly used, the consumption of peyote remains prevalent in certain cultures. Interestingly, the legal status of peyote is often unclear, despite its classification as a Schedule I substance, setting it apart from other psychedelics.
Mescaline became very popular in the counterculture movement of the 60s, but legal concerns led to the placement of mescaline and peyote in schedule I of the UN Convention on Drugs in 1967. Schedule I classification prohibited consumption and brought an abrupt halt to scientific research on these substances.
However, the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 (AIRFA) protected the religious use of Peyote for enrolled members of federally recognized Native American Tribes and all members of the Native American Church, with the caveat that it is used as part of a bona fide traditional religious ceremony.
Though the AIRFA essentially decriminalized peyote use for indigenous Americans and non-indigenous members of the NAC, the city of Oakland, CA decriminalized all “entheogenic plant medicines” in 2019. Oakland’s resolution makes it legal for adults aged 21 and over to cultivate, distribute, and consume peyote and other mescaline-containing cacti, regardless of ethnicity or religious orientation.
Also in 2020, the state of Oregon became the first US state to decriminalize the possession for personal use of all scheduled substances, including peyote. Now, instead of potentially going to prison, Oregonians caught with illicit drugs receive a civil citation and $100 fine. Importantly, Oregon's law doesn't fully legalize schedule 1 drugs, but merely changes the rules surrounding drug possession.
Religious use of peyote is also permitted in Mexico, however harvesting the wild cactus is controlled also due to its endangered status.
In Canada, isolated or synthetically produced mescaline is illegal but peyote is exempt from scheduling. Strangely, buttons must be consumed fresh in Canada, not dried.
In most European countries, it is legal to grow peyote but not to prepare it for consumption, whereas in Australia, the legality of peyote varies by state.
Recent decriminalization laws, such as Colorado Proposition 122, the Decriminalization, Regulated Distribution, and Therapy Program for Certain Hallucinogenic Plants and Fungi Initiative, generally exclude peyote due to its endangered status.
The peyote cactus is currently listed as an endangered species due to various factors, including habitat loss, overharvesting, and illegal poaching. Its native habitats in Mexico and the United States have faced significant degradation and fragmentation, threatening the survival of wild populations.
Efforts are being made to preserve and protect peyote cactus populations. Several organizations, indigenous groups, and conservationists are actively involved in conservation initiatives. Here are some key efforts:
1. Conservation Programs: Various organizations and institutions, such as the Peyote Conservation Initiative and the Native Plant Society of Texas, are working on conservation programs specifically focused on peyote. These programs aim to protect wild populations, promote sustainable harvesting practices, and raise awareness about the importance of preserving this culturally significant plant.
2. Habitat Restoration: Restoration projects are underway to restore and enhance the natural habitats of peyote cactus.
3. Cultivation and Propagation: Controlled cultivation and propagation of peyote cactus are being encouraged to reduce reliance on wild harvesting. By cultivating peyote in controlled environments like botanical gardens, research institutions, and indigenous communities, it helps alleviate pressure on wild populations.
By combining these conservation strategies, it is hoped that the endangered status of peyote cactus can be improved, allowing its populations to recover and ensuring its cultural and ecological significance for future generations.
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