When we think of drugs, we often think of stimulants (i.e., cocaine, crystal meth), depressants (i.e., alcohol, benzodiazepines), or even opiates (i.e., heroin, prescription painkillers). Of course, each of these classes of drugs have, at turns, reached epidemic-level proportions in the United States and abroad, which is why these are typically the substances that so readily come to mind. However, there are other drugs in use today that are just as dangerous as stimulants, depressants, and opiates, but for slightly different reasons. In particular, hallucinogens like peyote present a continuous threat to contemporary drug users who may underestimate this drug’s effects. But what, exactly, is peyote? Where does it come from? What are its effects? And, perhaps most importantly, is peyote addictive?
Before we jump straight into peyote, it’s important to take a moment to look back at the history of hallucinogens as a whole. Much like alcohol, cannabis, and opium, we have quite a long history with hallucinogens despite the fact that they’re not nearly as ubiquitous today as they have been in the past. If you look at historical records, many prehistoric and native tribes have used hallucinogens extensively for several purposes; for instance, hallucinogens have been used by Amazonian tribes as part of their spiritual practices while others have used hallucinogens for mental, spiritual, and even physical healing. Many of these primitive cultures believe that hallucinogens are a conduit for an elevated state of being or that these drugs can rid a person of evil spirits or compulsions. In fact, it’s even become a trend for people from western societies to travel abroad to visit these native tribes so that they can partake in rituals involving hallucinogenic substances like peyote or ayahuasca to help them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, or even addiction. Of course, the empirical evidence for these applications is quite thin.
Peyote comes from a small spineless cactus of the same name that’s also known as Lophohora williamsii; this particular cactus is native to Mexico and Southwestern Texas in the United States, making its use most common among Native American and Mexican indigenous peoples although the use of peyote has come to be associated with the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, peyote tends to grow in dry desert areas that are rich in limestone. The term ‘peyote’ is believed to be derived from Nahuatl words meaning ‘glisten’ or ‘glistening’, but other sources translate the term as ‘divine messenger’.
Tribal populations in the region have been using peyote for its hallucinogenic properties for at least the past five thousand years or more. Some of the most recent archaeological data has shown evidence of the use of peyote in caves with indicators of ritual practices. This practice remained mostly limited to native populations until the nineteenth century, when the use of peyote for spiritual and healing purposes made its way northward through the United States, largely attributed to what we know as the Native American Church. In fact, members of many of these tribes referred to peyote as “the sacred medicine”, but the U.S. government attempted to ban all uses of peyote, including in religious contexts. Despite the fact that peyote has, in fact, been outlawed, the Native American Church is one of several native groups that continue to use peyote as part of spiritual practices.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Dr. John Raleigh Briggs brought scientific attention to the use of peyote, resulting in a number of experiments as well as many researchers observing the drug’s use among native peoples. Meanwhile, ethnographers from other countries documented the use of peyote among the Indians of Mexico. However, the first documented use of peyote among non-natives was during the American Civil War when Texas Rangers who, after being captured by Union forces, soaked peyote cactus in water and became intoxicated after drinking the cactus-steeped liquid. Most recently, studies have found that the use of peyote among native peoples who use the substance for religious practices seem to have no lasting cognitive effects; however, it’s when the drug is used recreationally by substance abusers that there’s much greater risk for lasting psychological damage.
While a number of hallucinogenic substances are man-made chemicals, peyote is one that’s actually naturally-occurring, which mitigates many of the dangers often associated with hallucinogens. The hallucinogenic effects of peyote occur due to the mescaline it contains, which causes vivid visual hallucinations, synesthesia (the perception of ‘seeing’ music or ‘hearing’ colors), distorted perceptions of space and/or time, intermittent feelings of excitement and joy or panic and fear, difficulty focusing or concentrating, preoccupation with trivial details, physical numbness or tension, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, decreased appetite, shivering and chills, and a number of other psychological and physical effects.
With the majority of mind-altering substances, a person who continues to imbibe over a period of time will become addicted, physically and/or psychologically. However, many hallucinogens differ from other substances like stimulants, depressants, and opiates. For one thing, these substances can’t really be consumed with any regularity unless a person wants to render himself or herself unable to function in daily life; therefore, hallucinogens tend to be substances that are used only on occasion when a person doesn’t need to perform at a job or tend to responsibilities at home. Of course, there’s always the potential for peyote to be habit-forming, but the potential for physiological addiction is slim to none.
For the most part, the risks of using peyote are mostly mental and emotional. When under the influence of peyote, a person experiences vivid visions that could become quite scary and perhaps even traumatizing. As well, it’s not uncommon for hallucinogens like peyote to cause people to mentally relive past experiences, including ones that were unpleasant, which would be a very unpleasant experience. In fact, when such things happen, it’s often referred to as having a ‘bad trip’, but there’s some risk of physical harm, too. Specifically, there’s potential for a person who’s under the influence of hallucinogens to harm himself or others, whether it’s due to some sort of accident or even possibly intentional as a response to hallucinations.
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