Desert Tripping – A Closer Look At Peyote: Spiritual, Medical, and Controversial
There is something about these vast desert landscapes – overflowing with emptiness, hostility, and a unique style of beauty – that seems to evoke deep and introspective spiritual experiences in many of us.
It is a fact that people have been interested in the artistic and transcendental nature of the desert since ancient times. This phenomenon can be seen in various time periods, from desert theology in the Old Testament, to Jim Morrison’s “Lizard King” adventures in New Mexico, to the throngs of artists and free thinkers currently flocking to the Mojave. If there is one thing that can be said about desert landscapes, it is that they are truly magical – in their own harsh, untamable, and dangerous way.
All this magic, this wonder and this spiritual freedom also lead to curiosity and mostly the urge to connect more closely with the environment. Where can I go to be even more alone? What else is there? What kind of plants can bring me up and enhance my meditative experience? All valid questions, but let’s focus on the last one.
Most deserts have some type of hallucinogenic plant, but not all psychedelics are created equal. For example, in my neck of the woods (Joshua Tree) you can find Jimson Weed all over the place, a beautiful white flower that can certainly get you high … but it’s usually a bad journey that ends in illness and sometimes even death. No fun. If you are lucky enough to find yourself a little further east in the Chihuahuan desert, you will find a tiny cactus that doesn’t look like much but is world famous for the emotional, spiritual, and physical experience it can offer – peyote.
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Peyote: A Botanical Overview
Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a small, spineless cactus with psychoactive alkaloids, of which mescaline is the most interesting. Peyote is a Spanish word derived from the Nahuatl peyōtl and means “caterpillar cocoon”. It is native to Mexico and southwest Texas, as well as some parts of southeast New Mexico. It occurs mainly in the Chihuahuan Desert and in the western regions of the Sierra Marde.
The peyote cactus grows between thorny shrubs in the high regions, mostly between 330 and 4,920 feet, although in some rare cases it has been found at heights of up to 6,200 feet. It is a very hardy plant that can grow in many different weather conditions. Mostly she just needs that dry desert air. It is common for it to grow on or near limestone hills.
Peyotes are small, round, and somewhat flat, earthy green with tiny pink flowers at certain times of the year. It looks a lot like a green pumpkin with small flowers. The flowers bloom in spring and early summer, mostly from March to May, but can continue into September if the conditions are ideal.
The French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire first identified the species as Echinocactus williamsii in 1845. A few decades later it was classified in the newly founded genus Lophophora by the American botanist John Merle Coulter in 1894.
More about mescaline
Mescaline is a naturally occurring plant-based psychedelic protoalkaloid that belongs to the phenethylmine class. It is known for its powerful hallucinogenic properties, comparable to those of LSD and psilocybin. In addition to peyote, mescaline can also be synthesized from some other species of cactus such as the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi), the Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruviana), and others.
A common dose for peyote is around 200 to 400 mg, depending on the size of the person, level of experience with the plant, and other factors. This equates to roughly 10 to 20 grams of dried peyote buttons, although potency can vary significantly between plants. The effects of mescaline last for about 10 to 12 hours and can trigger very rich visual and auditory hallucinations.
Mescaline binds to virtually all serotonin receptors in the brain, but has a stronger affinity for the 1A and 2A / B / C receptors. It is structurally similar to LSD and is often used as a benchmark when comparing psychedelics. Proper brain function depends on accurate signal transmission between these receptors.
Spiritual and cultural history
Mescaline-containing cacti have long been used in Central and South America. For peyote in particular, a use has been documented that goes back around 5,700 years, but was probably used long before that. Many Native American religious ceremonies involved the use of peyote, and this was first noted by European settlers in the 16th century.
Although the use of peyotes was widespread at the time, misguided Spanish conquerors banned the act in most regions. Yes, they went to a land that did not belong to them and prohibited actions they did not know about. Religious persecution, however, restricted peyote use to a few selected areas near the Pacific coast and as far as southwest Texas.
However, in the 1800s, peyote use began to spread northward from this area to Central America. This has been attributed to a “new type of peyote ceremony” initiated by the people of Kiowa and Comanche. In 1920, these religious practices were written in the United States under laws enacted to protect the beliefs and rituals of the Native American Church.
It has since spread throughout the United States and as far as Saskatchewan, Canada. To this day, peyote is legally used in tribal religious ceremonies. Although it is federally banned for most U.S. citizens, there are exceptions for members of the Native American Church.
In traditional peyote preparations, the top of the cactus is cut off, leaving the large rooster root along with a small, green photosynthetic area where new heads can grow. These heads are then dried to make disc-shaped buttons. The buttons are chewed or soaked in water to make a drink. However, peyote is extremely bitter, so more contemporary users usually grind the dried buttons into a powder and pour them into capsules for consumption.
What does science say about peyote?
Peyote is also used medicinally in various indigenous cultures. For example, it has been used to treat various illnesses and ailments, including snake bits, diabetes, skin conditions, general pain, hormonal issues, viruses, and even blindness. In addition to mescaline, peyote also contains an alkaloid called peyocactin or hordenine as it is commonly called. Numerous studies have shown that Hordenine supports athletic performance and weight loss.
Peyote’s potent effects on the serotonin system make it a promising option for treating depression, PTSD, addiction, and other mental disorders. Research has shown that mescaline can increase blood flow and activity in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain regulates our ability to make plans, solve problems, control our emotions, and monitor our behavior. Low activity and poor circulation in this area of the brain have been linked to depression, anxiety, and subsequently to addiction and other disorders. Any problems that psychedelics, including mescaline, are designed to alleviate.
Additionally, after a peyote high, many users experience something known as an “afterglow” that can last up to 6 weeks after a trip. During the afterglow phase, users report feeling happier, less anxious, more empathetic, less prone to cravings, and more open to communication. These afterglow effects can increase the efficiency of therapy sessions while allowing the patient / user a degree of clarity and calm. While all anecdotal, this information has some obvious implications for future psychiatric treatment options for relief from depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
When it comes to side effects, especially long term, research is extremely limited. It’s considered a generally safe substance (depending on who you ask) and a lethal dose has not yet been identified. That said, there are no documented deaths from a peyote overdose.
Some studies have found a correlation between certain mental health problems and poor travel, although this is subjective as poor travel can be triggered by many different external factors. However, a 2005 study of Native American ceremonial use found no evidence of negative, long-term health effects from regular peyote use. According to the study, “peyote appears to have a low risk of flashbacks or hallucinogenic persistent cognitive disorder (HPPD).”
What to expect
If you decide to try peyote for yourself, you can expect to feel the effects in about 30 minutes. Mild physical discomfort, such as sweating or flatulence, usually occurs, but these quickly subside and eventually lead to feelings of calm, peace, and acceptance.
You will peak or feel the maximum psychoactive effects approximately two to four hours after you start your trip. Many people describe it as mystical, transcendent, profound and eye-opening. They feel deeply connected to themselves, their thoughts and the world around them. Visual distortion is also common – colors can appear more vivid, patterns can appear to be moving, and you may see walls or other inanimate objects that appear to be breathing. Some believe that they see the real energy or life force in everything around them.
Bad rides or negative highs are also possible, but they’re more likely to occur when a user overlooks the importance of setting the stage up before they get high. It is important that you are in a safe place with people you are comfortable with. Any fears about your immediate surroundings can lead to a bad trip.
If you’re looking for a natural, therapeutic hallucinogen that is deeply rooted in Native American shamanic culture, you’ve come to the right place with the peyote cactus. It is a powerful psychedelic that is endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert and is still used in religious ceremonies to this day.
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