Peyote (“buttons,” “mesc,” “cactus”) is a cactus plant consumed for its hallucinogenic properties and ability to alter a user’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions 1. The top of the cactus plant that protrudes from the ground (the crown) consists of “buttons” in disc shape that are brewed in tea, liquefied and swallowed, or eaten raw. Intoxicating effects from these peyote buttons may begin within 20 to 90 minutes and may last for up to 12 hours 2.
Mescaline is the primary psychoactive alkaloid substance present in peyote, and is responsible for causing users to see or sense things that are not present 2.
Peyote has been used for centuries as a part of spiritual and religious rituals, particularly by Native Americans in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. It is also sometimes used recreationally for its hallucinogenic “high.”
A 2014 national survey found that 1.2 million Americans ages 12 and over were current users of hallucinogens like peyote 3.
Though researchers do not fully understand how hallucinogens affect the brain and body, it appears that they alter communication between the neurotransmitters in the brain and spinal cord that control mood and sensory perception, as well as several physical processes like sleep and muscle control 2. As a result, hallucinogens can cause changes in perception and mood. The pleasurable experience of having a person’s mood and senses altered may lead to abuse of peyote.
Peyote abuse may be dangerous due to the potential for negative effects, ranging from high blood pressure and vomiting in the short term to persistent symptoms of psychosis in the long term 1,4.
Signs and Symptoms
A person under the influence of peyote may experience 1,4:
- Increased heart rate.
- Heightened emotions.
- Altered sensory experiences.
- Distorted sense of time.
Signs of Problematic Use
In some cases, users may increase the amount or frequency of their peyote use. Over time, abuse of the drug may negatively impact a person’s life. Professionals refer to a set of 11 symptoms, called a “substance use disorder,” to determine the severity of a person’s drug use.
Symptoms of a substance use disorder include 5:
- Taking larger amounts of the drug over time.
- Failure to cut down.
- Spending long amounts of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the drug.
- Craving the drug.
- Failing to uphold responsibilities at work, home, or school because of drug use.
- Continuing to use despite interpersonal or physical/mental health problems.
- Giving up important activities because of drug use
- Using the drug in harmful situations like operating machinery.
- Requiring more of the drug to experience the desired effects.
- Developing withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug.
A person who experiences two or more signs of a substance use disorder may have a problem with peyote or, technically, meet the criteria for diagnosis of other hallucinogen use disorder. Seeking treatment, attending support groups, and taking steps to reduce or abstain from peyote can prevent further negative consequences of use.
Effects of Abuse
Peyote can harm a user’s physical and mental well-being. Even one-time peyote use can lead to serious symptoms, including 6:
- Rapid heart rate.
- High blood pressure.
Peyote toxicity can result when a person takes a large amount of the drug and/or has a bad reaction. In most cases, symptoms are not life-threatening and often subside within 24 hours 6. However, symptoms should be evaluated by a medical professional to determine if further treatment is needed.
Social and Lifestyle Consequences
Peyote abuse can also lead to negative life consequences such as:
- Legal problems.
- Increased risk of accidents if using in dangerous situations.
- Failure to keep up with important responsibilities.
- Abandonment of hobbies and other healthy pleasures.
- Problems in relationships with family and friends.
- Problems at work or school.
While peyote has been used recreationally for spiritual and religious purposes for centuries, some users experience negative effects because of their use. Negative effects can include physical reactions, mental health problems, and problems functioning in everyday life.
Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) and Persistent Psychosis
Abuse of hallucinogens like peyote may also lead to Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), a condition where flashbacks, hallucinations, and other visual sensations may spontaneously arise even when the person is not presently under the influence of peyote 2. Symptoms can persist long after a person has used the drug. HPPD is more common among people with prior mental health issues, but all hallucinogen users are at risk, even after one-time use 2.
Peyote abuse can also lead to persistent psychosis 2. Symptoms can include:
- Mood instability.
- Visual disturbances, such as seeing halos or trails.
When severe, the symptoms of HPPD and persistent psychosis may be managed with antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs, as well as methods such as psychotherapy.
Statistics on Peyote Use
Peyote, like other hallucinogenic drugs, may be abused by both adolescents and adults for its mind-altering effects. A 2014 national survey examined rates of drug use across different age groups 3:
- Approximately 136,000 Americans ages 12 to 17, or 0.5% of adolescents, were currently using hallucinogens.
- Hallucinogen use is most prominent among adults ages 18 to 25. Approximately 502,000 Americans, or 1.4% of the age group, reported using hallucinogens.
- Close to , or 0.3% of the age group, were currently using hallucinogens.
The majority of all illicit drug use starts between the ages of 16 and 17 7, and one of the main reasons for drug use among teens is to “feel good” 8. Because peyote alters the user’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of reality, it may appeal to teens looking to change their emotional state 1.
Teens at higher risk of abusing drugs like peyote include those with one or more of the following 7:
- Family conflict.
- Physical and mental health conditions.
- Poor performance in school.
- Criminal justice involvement.
Teens may also use drugs like peyote to feel better, or cope with negative feelings 8. A 2014 national survey found that teens who had experienced depression within the past year were more likely to use hallucinogenic drugs than teens without depression 3.
Adolescents may be especially at risk of abusing drugs during periods of transition, such as moving to a new area or changing schools 7.
Additionally, adolescents experiencing changes in their brains may have urges to try new things. This can make the prospect of experimenting with drugs seem enticing 8.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prevention is an effective strategy when it comes to reducing teen drug use 7. Taking preventative steps can help minimize the risk of drug use among teens and future abuse as an adult. Possible prevention efforts include:
- Educating adolescents about the effects of illicit drugs. Teens may have false information about the risks drug use. Parents may also feel the need to exaggerate the effects of drugs to scare teens, which often has the reverse effect. Providing accurate information can help clear up misconceptions.
- Encouraging open discussion. Teens may have a hard time discussing their feelings about drugs with their parents. Providing an opportunity for adolescents to discuss their thoughts and feelings about trying drugs without fear of judgment can help them to make more responsible decisions.
- Teaching assertiveness skills. Peers play a significant role in the lives of teens. Some teens may want to refuse drugs, but fear the loss of peer relationships and harm to their reputations. Discussing ways for teens to express themselves in an assertive manner can reduce anxiety when it comes to saying ‘no.’
- Encouraging participation in alternative activities and hobbies. Drugs like peyote may be less enticing when teens have other outlets for fun. Teens that are involved in sports, art, music, and other hobbies, and have supportive relationships with family and friends, may naturally have less interest in using drugs.
Early drug use in life can lead to changes in the brain that can have long-term effects on motivation, memory, learning, judgment, and impulse control 7. Teens who abuse drugs are also at risk of long-term addiction. Therefore, taking preventative measures can help reduce future risks and harms.
Resources, Articles, and More Information
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also provides data on hallucinogen abuse.
NIDA for Teens offers Mind over Matter, a guide for teaching children about the dangers of hallucinogens like peyote.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) provides ten tips for preventing teen drug use.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). DrugFacts: Hallucinogens.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Research report series: Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs. NIH Publication Number 15-4209.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Halpern, J. H. (2004). Hallucinogens and dissociative agents naturally growing in the United States.Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 102(2), 131-138.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Carstairs, S. D., & Cantrell, F. L. (2010). Peyote and mescaline exposures: A 12-year review of a statewide poison center database. Clinical Toxicology, 48(4), 350-353.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction. NIH Pub No. 14-5605.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Why Do Adolescents Take Drugs?