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Mescaline

Mescaline (MES-cuh-leen or MES-cuh-lin) is the compound 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine. However, mescaline is also known as peyote (pay-OH-tee), big chief, blue cap, buttons, cactus buttons, cactus head, chief, media luna, mesc, mescal, mezcakuba, moon, san pedro, topi, and other names.

Famous for producing hallucinogenic effects comparable to those produced by sister compounds psilocybin and LSD, mescaline is a psychedelic protoalkaloid that occurs naturally in the wild and is classified as a substituted phenethylamine. Mescaline occurs naturally in various species of cactus, including the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi), the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii or Lophophora diffusa), the Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruvianus), and others.

In some species of bean such as Fabaceae, mescaline may occur in small amounts. Some claim that this includes species of Acacia such as Acacia berlandieri. However, those claims have been challenged.

The oldest known hallucinogenic compound, it is likely that the strange qualities of mescaline were discovered by ancient people accidentally as they experimented with plants searching for food. Mescaline, of course, does not make good food, and typically causes intense stomach cramps alongside its psychedelic effects.

Overview of Mescaline

Mescaline is an alkaloid that certain types of cactus plants produce naturally. Mescaline is also a hallucinogen, meaning it creates hallucinations in the brain that cause the user to see, hear, smell, taste, or otherwise perceive strange things that are not actually there or happening.

The peyote cactus is the best known of the plants to produce mescaline naturally. Today, scientists can also produce the same chemicals that cause hallucinations in humans artificially in a laboratory setting.

Many native nations in North America have consumed mescaline in religious rituals for thousands of years, and some native peoples still do. The consumption of mescaline and other hallucinogens is a tool for understanding one’s place in the universe, one’s purpose, and the self at a deeper level. The idea is that the hallucinations themselves are messages or visions from the spiritual place to be interpreted.

Starting in the 1950s, outsiders began to show interest in mescaline as a possible treatment for mental health issues. In recent years, some advances have been made in this area, as discussed below.

Although there has been some limited recreational abuse of mescaline as a drug, especially during the peak of interest in psychedelia in the 1960s and 1970s, recreational use of mescaline has never been widespread. Both natural and artificial versions of mescaline or peyote are difficult to source and expensive; often, what may be sold as “mescaline” on the street is actually another substance.

What Is Mescaline Made Of?

When we say, “mescaline,” we’re really referring to the active ingredient that causes hallucinogenic effects and can be found in a number of plants. However, people often use the term as shorthand or a name for the plants themselves, or for the plant parts that are consumed.

There are just a few regions in the world where mescaline-producing plants thrive. The two main sources of mescaline are the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii or Lophophora diffusa) and the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi)—both members of the plant family Cactaceae. Of the two, the peyote cactus is the most famous by far of the mescaline plants, to the extent that the word “peyote” is typically synonymous with any type of mescaline in conversation, even when the source of the mescaline in question is a different plant.

The true peyote cactus plant grows close to the ground, and is a blue-green or a gray-green. Unlike many other varieties of cacti, the peyote cactus lacks protective spines and instead resembles a small cushion in sections. Those sections, called podarea, surround a woolly center piece of tufted trichomes.

The natural range of the peyote cactus spans southern Mexico to southern Texas. There are several varieties of Lophophora williamsii, including Lophophora echinata var. diffusa and Echinocactus williamsii. For example, the fleshy, yellow-green Lophophora diffusa cactus, a close relative to peyote, grows only in the dry, central region of Queretaro, Mexico.

The peyote plant is thought to be named for either the Mexican phrase for “hallucinogenic plant,” piule, or the Nahuatl word for cocoon, pi-youtl. Among the slowest-growing of all cacti, the peyote plant does not reach maturity until about age thirteen. Plants that reach the age of thirty, which some native users call “Grandfather Peyote,” are only about the size of a baseball.

This slow aging process matters, because a peyote cactus must typically grow for at least four years before it generates even one “button.” These dime-sized buttons are the sections on top of the cactus that users remove and eat to experience hallucinogenic effects.

In contrast to the peyote cactus, the San Pedro cactus does have prickly spines, and grows in high columns sometimes reaching as tall as twenty feet. Because it is often sold as an ornamental plant, the San Pedro cactus has become widespread, although it originated in the mountain regions of Peru and Ecuador.

The San Pedro cactus, like the peyote cactus, has some close relatives in the Trichocereus family. These psychoactive cacti are also hallucinogenic, and each variety contains forty to sixty nitrogen-containing compounds or alkaloids. However, the only alkaloid among those that causes hallucinations is mescaline.

How much mescaline a cactus contains depends on its maturity. A peyote cactus, for example, may contain approximately 4 percent mescaline on average.

Mescaline in its pure form is crystalline and can be extracted from the plant. The compound can also be produced in a laboratory setting artificially. However, pure mescaline, whether manufactured or extracted, is extremely rare because it is very costly to produce. This is why nearly all mescaline is consumed in natural form, such as peyote buttons, or other mescaline-producing plant material. In part due to development across the natural range of these plants, the number of peyote cacti in particular is declining.

How Do You Take Mescaline?

Typically, users chew up and swallow from twelve to thirty dried buttons from the peyote cactus at a time to get the mescaline into their system. In some cases, people brew tea from the buttons with hot water, or grind dried peyote buttons into a powder and swallow that with liquid or in capsules.

A dose of about 0.3 to 0.5 grams of mescaline is sufficient to produce hallucinations, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This is equivalent to the amount of mescaline in about 5 grams of dried peyote.

The cost of producing the approximately 0.5 grams of synthetic mescaline it takes to produce hallucinations is between $50 and $100 per use. This is why there is very little market for mescaline in the world of illegal drugs.

According to authorities, most capsules or tablets sold as “synthetic mescaline” actually contain very little or no real mescaline. Generally they have been mixed with other compounds, often more dangerous than true mescaline, such as ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, or phencyclidine (PCP).

What to Expect From Mescaline

The taste of peyote buttons is very bitter and unpleasant, as is the taste of powders and teas made from them—and really any other psychoactive plants and cacti. The first response to them from the human body is often intense pain in the stomach, followed by nausea and vomiting.

Between thirty and sixty minutes after eating mescaline, it begins to take effect on the brain. The effects of mescaline may last for as long as ten to twelve hours, although the hallucinations are most intense for about two hours.

Other effects from mescaline can include anxiety, dilated pupils, dizziness, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, loss of appetite, numbness, sleeplessness, sweating, and trembling. Pregnant women should use particular caution with mescaline as it can cause contractions of the uterus and intestines, which could be dangerous during pregnancy. Mescaline toxicity is rare.

We know how mescaline, and all hallucinogens, work in the brain thanks to research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. That work explored the chemical structure of LSD and found that it is similar to that of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a naturally occurring substance or chemical inside the body that relays signals between nerve cells to pass messages to the brain. Serotonin is especially important because although it is not the only neurotransmitter, it regulates many others.

Hallucinogens disrupt normal interactions between neurotransmitters and nerve cells within the brain with an array of interesting effects that cause the user to perceive the sound, smell, sight, and feel of everything in the actual surroundings as unusually warped. These temporary chemical changes in the brain may also cause waves of emotions that are out-of-place or wildly exaggerated. It is common for users to experience rapid mood swings, moving from fits of terror to bouts of laughter at nothing. A hallucinogen such as mescaline can cause the user to feel their senses become confused, yet they may feel a heightened sense of awareness.

This hallucinogen-fueled state is commonly called a trip—and like witches, there are good trips and bad trips.

Most trips are good. Users frequently report trips that make them feel stimulated, happy, insightful, more self-aware, or more tuned into their place in the world. These experiences have fostered interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs.

Mescaline users often report blended sensory experiences such as “hearing colors” or “seeing sounds.” This phenomenon is called synesthesia (sinn-ess-THEE-zhuh). Mescaline is well-known for producing visions that are vividly colored and truly detached from the reality of the user’s environment, although any hallucinogen has the potential to mess with the user’s sense of reality.

Of course, not every mescaline trip is good. For a host of poorly-understood reasons, mescaline users may experience a bad trip. On a bad mescaline trip, hallucinations may be truly realistic and terrifying. Some users feel consumed by unbearable anxiety and sadness. Others feel panicked, as if they are about to die, lose their mind, or go completely out of control.

Some mescaline users attempt to do dangerous things. This may be because they experience false feelings of power, or because they try to escape their visions as they become fearful and then panic about their frightening hallucinations.

Is It Really Mescaline?

Remember, anything sold as “mescaline” on the street may in fact be mixed with or entirely composed of other psychedelic drugs or substances. It is rare to find actual mescaline—and expensive. PCP and LSD are common additives in false mescaline tablets. PCP or “angel dust” in particular can be dangerous, and can cause extreme aggressive behavior and fear, convulsions, and coma—side effects you would not see with mescaline alone.

Some chemically similar drugs made in a laboratory are known as mescaline analogs. They are similar in some ways to mescaline, but are more dangerous, and any might adulterate or replace genuine mescaline. These include club drugs or designer drugs like ecstasy or MDMA, and other amphetamines and methamphetamines.

History and Use of Mescaline

Native Americans in North America have been using peyote for at least 5,000 years. Upon early contact, Europeans noted religious ceremonies in Mexico that used peyote, such as those among the Huichols. Dried plant matter containing mescaline dating back to 5,000 BCE was uncovered by archaeologists in Texas in a cave.

A stone carving of a peyote cactus in Peru from 1300 BCE has been recovered. And archaeologists found a skeleton in Coahuila, Mexico that dates back 1,000 years—and with it, a beaded necklace of dried peyote buttons.

Mescaline-producing plants became very culturally important in regions where they thrived because local people believed that the hallucinations they helped to produce were messages from gods and spirits. However, they were also important medicinally.

Fray Bernardino Sahagun, a Spanish missionary who lived from 1499 to 1590 and studied the culture of the Indians of Mexico, provides the earliest written information about mescaline use. He posited that it was likely the buttons of the peyote plant were eaten when fighting at times, because it soothed sensations of thirst, hunger, and fear.

The first to describe the peyote plant itself was Dr. Francisco Hernandez, the personal physician of Spain’s King Phillip II. He also noted the plant’s medicinal uses alongside its spiritual purposes, with the peyote buttons used ritually, and the root of the plant ground up and made into paste used for joint pain relief.

However, perhaps sensing the plant’s cultural importance, the Spanish attempted to stamp out the use of mescaline-producing plants such as peyote when they began to colonize Mexico in the 1500s. The Spanish of that era saw use of mescaline through the lens of Catholicism: as a pagan ritual.

The Spanish rejected paganism and the practices of those who worshipped many gods in the context of non-Christian religions such as the native peoples who used peyote and other hallucinogenic plants. By 1720, based on the belief that mescaline users were calling on evil spirits, a law in Mexico outlawed the use of peyote, forcing the devout into underground peyote cults who worshipped in secret ceremonies.

There is a rich history of other mescaline use from Ecuador to Peru and throughout South America. These traditions focus mostly on the San Pedro cactus and other mescaline-containing species.

At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, ceremonial and religious peyote use was widespread in northern Mexico and the Aztec empire. However, Spanish conquest, colonization, and religious persecution confined use of mescaline to regions in South and Central America close to the Pacific coast, as far into North America as southwest Texas.

The use of mescaline-producing cacti and European settlements spread across North America simultaneously—or at least records of both did. The first known use of mescaline via peyote in the US was in 1760, but some Native American tribes had developed rituals around the use of the plants by the time of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865).

By 1880, the Kiowa and Comanche peoples and their peyote ceremonies began to attract the attention of outsiders. This was firm evidence of mescaline use in North America and may have been related to raids by the Kiowa and Comanche on the Mescalero people of northern Mexico.

The Native American Church (NAC) was founded in 1918 to provide an official structure for the ceremonial peyote use inaugurated by the Kiowa and Comanche people in religious practices. These beliefs and practices were legally incorporated in 1920 in the US. Since that time, both NAC and ceremonial peyote use has moved as far north as Canada.

As the NAC established itself, a long debate—one that is ongoing—concerning the legality of substance use tied to churches. This is an issue of religious freedom for Native Americans.

Traditional preparation of peyote typically follows the same course. The harvester cuts off the top of the cactus, to remove the heads. The heads are then dried to make disc-shaped buttons. Only the top is removed, leaving the large tap root intact so new heads will grow.

Users chew the buttons to produce mescaline’s effects, or soak the buttons in water and brew tea to drink. However, because of the bitter taste of the cactus, modern users often avoid having to taste it, and sometimes grind it into a powder and for capsules.

A typical dosage of mescaline sulfate for humans is 200 to 400 milligrams. For mescaline hydrochloride that’s 178 to 356 milligrams. There is about 25 mg of mescaline in the average 3 inch or 76 mm button, so it can take some intention to reach a full dose.

During the late nineteenth century, the Western world began to take a scientific interest in hallucinogenic substances. Arthur Heffter, a German chemist who lived from 1859 to 1925, became the first person to isolate and identify mescaline in 1897 as the chemical causing hallucinations in peyote users.

Mescaline later became the first hallucinogenic compound to be extracted or synthesized from its parent plant like this. Ernst Späth achieved this distinction with mescaline in 1918.

By the mid-twentieth century, interest in hallucinogens was growing in Europe and the West. In 1955, British BBC television show Panorama conducted an experiment with English politician Christopher Mayhew. Mayhew, supervised by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, ingested 400 mg of mescaline on film. Although the recording was ultimately omitted from the show because the BBC said it was too controversial, Mayhew himself praised the experience.

From Shamanism to Medicine: Potential Therapeutic Use of Mescaline

In many traditional cultures, spiritual problems are reflected in physical illnesses. Medicine men or shamans therefore treat the spirit and the physical body simultaneously, whether with herbal remedies or other practices.

The cultures that use peyote in traditional ways view it as a powerful form of medicine. It can be used in a variety of forms to combat a range of problems. The buttons themselves can help users treat alcoholism and depression, while the root can be ground into a pain-relieving paste for sore joints.

As the Native Americans way of life was disrupted by colonization, the use of alcohol became a serious problem for many. Colonizing Europeans forced Native peoples off their lands and brought alcohol with them—a substance that was new to native peoples and one their bodies were susceptible to.

As soon as they started to recognize its use, Western researchers became interested in the potential mental health applications of mescaline. Some were already working to discover how hallucinogens including mescaline might assist them in understanding and treating insanity by the late 1800s. The observation by scientists was that hallucinogens seem to produce insanity-like effects, so maybe they could help researchers better understand brain activity and emotions more generally and how chemicals affect both.

In this way, serious research into both natural and human-made hallucinogens was conducted for many years. However, even as research continued, in 1927 New Mexico became the first state to pass a law making the use of peyote and related substances illegal.

Even so, outside of native cultures, mescaline was used only rarely until the mid-twentieth century, when a book called The Doors of Perception was published describing British novelist and author Aldous Huxley’s personal experiments with peyote in 1953. The book was a mainstay during the 1960s and 1970s, as this push and pull continued as more states outlawed the substances and interest in their applications grew.

Focus on mind-altering drugs and their possible beneficial uses was at a high point in the 1960s. Many hoped that both human-made hallucinogens such as LSD and natural hallucinogens such as mescaline might be used to treat addiction, anxiety, autism, depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, PTSD, and other mental illnesses.

During this time, Harvard University professor Timothy Leary (1920–1996) was personally and professionally experimenting with LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a human-made hallucinogen, and mescaline. Leary wrote about his experiences, and particularly on college campuses, those writings fueled more interest in hallucinogens as their street use became more common.

As more and more people experimented with hallucinogenic drugs of varying quality in uncontrolled settings from New York to San Francisco, results were occasionally getting dangerous. Users occasionally had “bad trips,” or even “flashbacks,” after they consumed the drug. Public health and safety organizations—with varying levels of evidence—warned that heavy or even any use of hallucinogens, including any form of mescaline, could cause permanent damage and psychosis.

This, in tandem with inconclusive research results led to calls for a prohibition on all further study of psychedelics. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act found that hallucinogens including mescaline have no known medical use.

However, peyote advocates addressed the US Congress during the 1990s about its use in treating alcoholism among the Native American population. This rekindled interest in research into the effects of peyote.

We now know that disorders such as alcoholism and depression are linked to serotonin deficiencies, suggesting a possible role for mescaline in psychiatry. However, mescaline remains mostly unavailable to researchers due to its status as a Schedule I controlled substance in the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Very little research into mescaline’s potential therapeutic effects and activity in humans has been conducted in approximately 50 years.

Pharmacokinetics of Mescaline

Mescaline users build tolerance over time, which lasts for a few days. Using mescaline can cause cross-tolerance with other psychedelics that impact serotonin, such as psilocybin and LSD. Within six hours, users excrete about half the initial dosage of mescaline, but some studies indicate that mescaline is not metabolized before excretion.

Plants produce substances called catecholamines as a sort of synthesis caused by a stress response, similar to the way that animals may release cortisol and similar compounds when they are stressed. Catecholamines are not well-understood, but may serve as cell wall components that resist pathogenic degradation, developmental signals, and antioxidants. Plants engage in methylation to deactivate catecholamines and this produces mescaline and other alkaloids.

Mescaline produces hallucinogenic effects because it is structurally similar to the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline. It acts as an agonist, like other psychedelic substances, with a high affinity for binding to and activating the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor, and also the serotonin 5-HT2C receptor.

Scientists are still unsure how activating these serotonin receptors produces psychedelic effects, but they believe that the pharmacology may be related to the excitation of neurons in the prefrontal cortex.

Effects of Mescaline

The psychedelic state induced by mescaline is similar to those produced by psilocybin, DMT, and LSD, but with its own unique qualities. Subjective effects from ingestion of mescaline can include an altered sense of time and self-awareness, altered thinking processes, and both open- and closed-eye visual phenomena.

Vivid colors are prominent for mescaline users. Recurring visual patterns mescaline users observe include angular spikes or stripes, chess boards, multicolor and rainbow dots, spirals or tunnels, and fractals from the very simple to the very complex. In the 1920s, Heinrich Klüver described one of the typical visual hallucinations from the early stage of a mescaline trip with the phrase “cobweb figure” with “colored threads running together in a revolving center.” According to Klüver, most ‘atypical’ visions are actually just variations of those same visions described above.

Mescaline, like LSD or magic mushrooms, induces kaleidoscopic experiences and distortions of form, but they manifest with eyes closed, more clearly, and under conditions of low lighting. Aldous Huxley described these fractals and other visual experiences in his book as being similar to animated stained glass lit through the eyelids.

Synesthesia is common with mescaline as it is with LSD, and music can assist in this experience. The “geometrization” of three-dimensional objects, in which they appear distorted and flattened similar to a Cubist painting, is a unique and strange characteristic of mescaline use.

The peripheral nervous system is also a major target for mescaline, which elicits a pattern of sympathetic arousal.

Legality of Mescaline

Although legality varies from place to place, mescaline use is mostly prohibited.

United States

In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act prohibited peyote use throughout the US, defining mescaline and all hallucinogens as Schedule I drugs. At that time, since that means that they have no known medical use, legal research on mescaline ended. The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances also prohibited mescaline internationally.

Although there was limited street use of mescaline at the height of the drug subculture of the 1960s and 1970s, much of what was sold as mescaline was likely other substances since both natural and artificial forms of mescaline have always been expensive and difficult to obtain.

According to the DEA, peyote and mescaline are rarely used as street drugs. Only about 19.4 pounds of peyote were taken in drug raids between 1980 and 1987, and there were no reports of illegal trafficking of peyote at all, compared to over 15 million pounds of cannabis during the same time.

According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), overall hallucinogen use, including mescaline use, dropped from 2002 to 2003 from 4.7 million to 3.9 million users. Only 1 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 used hallucinogens, with less than 1 percent of adults over 26 used them.

Today, mescaline is legal in scientific and medical research and for certain religious groups under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. However, the religious use exception is muddy. In 1990, the mescaline ban in the state of Oregon was upheld by the Supreme Court, even as it applied to Native American religious ceremonies.

In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permitted peyote use in religious ceremony, but then in 1997, RFRA was found unconstitutional as applied to states according to the Supreme Court. However, many states, such as Utah, permit peyote usage within a religious organization, or with “sincere religious intent.” Peyote remains legal for Natives to sell in Texas.

Technically, the cacti of the genus Echinopsis which contain mescaline are controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act. However, they are often publicly sold as ornamental plants in the US.

Among the slowest-growing plants, peyote is unlikely to become more plentiful, particularly as its natural habitat continues to be threatened by land development. In Texas, legal authorities protect and supervise the legal cultivation of peyote for use within the NAC.

United Kingdom

The purified powder form of mescaline is a Class A drug in the United Kingdom. However, it is legal to buy and sell dried cactus.

Australia

The Australian Poisons Standard (February 2020) lists mescaline as a schedule 9 substance “with a high potential for causing harm at low exposure and which require special precautions during manufacture, handling or use. These poisons should be available only to specialised or authorised users who have the skills necessary to handle them safely. Special regulations restricting their availability, possession, storage or use may apply.”

Practically speaking, mescaline-containing plants such as the peyote cacti and the San Pedro cactus are illegal in Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory, and legal for ornamental and gardening purposes in other states such as Victoria, Tasmania, and New South Wales.

Other countries

In France, Germany, and The Netherlands, both dried mescaline-containing cacti and mescaline in its raw form are considered illegal drugs. However, peyote, or Echinopsis pachanoi, Echinopsis peruviana, or Lophophora williamsii, may be grown or used by anyone without restriction as it is exempt from legislation.

The above is true in Canada, where mescaline is also classified as a schedule III drug under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act—although that Act exempts peyote.

In Russia mescaline, mescaline-containing plants, and derivatives are all Schedule I banned narcotic drugs.

Final Thoughts on Mescaline

Mescaline’s history and culture is a fascinating one. Diving into the mescaline cobweb is not for everyone, but for many it can offer unparalleled insight into the self and the universe.

Author

  • Ed Markey is a former special education teacher turned psychedelics enthusiast. His goal is to help shine a light on the emerging potential of psychedelics to help improve people's lives--focusing especially on writing in-depth pieces, research based, to help educate those interested in how psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, and more can potentially help improve mental health (when taken in conjunction with medical supervision, in states where it is legal to do so).