It’s increasingly commong to hear about people travelling to Mexico or to Peru to consume psychedelics for healing purposes under the careful guidance of an experienced shaman. Ayahuasca, San Pedro, and peyote have gained popularity among westerners in the last few decades, but Native Americans have been using psychoactive plants for centuries. Unlike Ayahuasca, which is a brew made out of different vines and leaves, San Pedro and Peyote are both cacti. They also share the same active compound: mescaline.
What is Mescaline?
Mescaline is a natural hallucinogen found in certain kinds of cacti native to the Americas, including peyote, San Pedro, and Peruvian Torch. In its natural state, mescaline has been used for over 5000 years by Native Americans in religious and shamanic ceremonies. San Pedro is more common in South America, particularly Peru and Ecuador, while peyote has deep roots in Mexican culture and history.
In traditional peyote preparations, the top of the cactus is cut off, then sliced and dried to make pieces resembling discs. These discs are either chewed or soaked in water to drink, producing the psychedelic experience and hallucinations. However, due to the bitterness of the cactus flesh, some modern users grind it into a powder and pour it into capsules to avoid the taste.
What to Expect from a Mescaline Experience
Some contributing factors to a mescaline experience include dose, state of mind, mood, setting, and method of consumption. Each experience and journey is unique, and there is no way to predict exactly what will happen, but mescaline does have some common effects.
Independent of any other factors, mescaline is highly hallucinogenic. Its effects are usually felt within an hour of consumption and can last up to eight hours. During the experience, visual hallucinations such as colours, patterns, and spirals may appear. These visuals also tend to take the form of more specific objects like buildings, animals, or people.
Another common effect is experiencing a change in the physical environment like being able to “see” sound, or other forms of synesthesia. Some users even report having seen their bodies distorted.
While recreational hallucinations might be interesting to some people, mescaline is mostly used for spiritual purposes. Similarly to Ayahuasca, the mescaline experience is said to be a deeply spiritual one that allows self-exploration which can lead to transformation and healing.
Origin: Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Societies
Mescaline is native to the Americas. Peyote is endemic to Mexico and part of Texas, and San Pedro can be found in the Andes and most prevalent in modern-day Peru and Ecuador. Records indicate that the use of psychoactive plants was very common for shamanic rituals in most Mesoamerican cultures from the Aztecs and Mayans to the Incas and Aymaras.
When Spanish Conquistadors arrived on the American continent, they noted the use of peyote in Indigenous Mexican societies. They found that it was being traded and used as a sacrament and quickly realized that the people who used it were experiencing hallucinations and visions.
The Spanish priests unsurprisingly believed that these visions were “a work of the Devil” and tried to take control of the plant. Religious persecution confined peyote to areas near the Pacific coast of Mexico and part of Texas.
With San Pedro, the story was basically the same. It was widely used by many pre-hispanic Andean cultures including the Incas by the time the Spanish arrived in Peru. Shortly after that, the plant was deemed impure by religious standards.
How the Aztecs and Mayans used Peyote
Ancient Mexican societies had extensive knowledge of psychoactive plants. It is believed that consumption among the Aztecs and Mayans was mostly ceremonial, medicinal, and spiritual. Particularly prevalent in Aztec and Mayan culture, peyote was considered a sacred plant that allowed them to cure diseases, ensure a good harvest, predict the future, and even gain telepathic powers.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they recorded two different forms of peyote ritual. One was a healing and spiritual ceremony where a shaman or healer used it to cure an illness or to see future events. The other one, involved villagers eating or drinking peyote and then engaging in a dance around a fire in a communal trance or frenzy. Peyote was forbidden by the Inquisition in 1720.
Despite the massive destruction of botanical culture in Mexico, knowledge of peyote and its uses by prehispanic societies was rescued by some chroniclers and Spanish doctors, who were fascinated by it.
How the Inca used San Pedro
In the Incan empire, San Pedro was used by shamans, who brewed a beverage that they believed allowed them to communicate with spirits and gods. They saw it mostly as a link between this world, known to the Inca as Kay Pacha, and the spiritual realm, known as Hanan Pacha. Its relevance in the Inca culture was fundamental and it appears frequently in artistic representations such as ceramics. Records also show that it was used by many pre-Incan cultures as well.
Aside from the primary spiritual purpose of communicating with different realms, the Incas used San Pedro as medicine. It was used to treat throat conditions and rheumatism, among other health issues.
When the Spanish conquerors arrived in Peru, they noticed that the Incan priests adored and harvested an unusual kind of tall cactus. It is a popular belief in Peru that San Pedro, which translates into Saint Peter, got its name because the infamous Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro said it “opened the door of heaven.”
How did Mescaline Reach the Rest of the World?
While mescaline started making its way to Europe and other parts of the world after the conquest of America, it wasn’t synthesized in a laboratory until 1919. A year later, in 1920, mescaline sulfate was available as a pure drug in some European pharmacy suppliers. It was even administered under clinical supervision to Jean-Paul Satre in 1929.
Psychologists and neurologists all over Europe began conducting trials with this new and fascinating substance almost immediately. The reports from these encounters consisted mostly of bizarre sensations, visual hallucinations, and cosmic revelations. They compared its effect to that of LSD.
During the 50s, it was widely used in schizophrenia research, with Dr. Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies being pioneers in the field. Osmond and Smythies recognized the similarities between the hallucinogenic effects of mescaline and the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia. They proposed that mescaline could be used to mimic psychosis.
In the early 60s the guidelines on psychedelic research tightened, and working with mescaline became less plausible. By the mid-60s, illicit LSD had hit the streets, becoming a highly lucrative and popular psychedelic while mescaline remained mysterious and obscure.
How Does the World see Mescaline Today?
Mescaline, while still relevant, is not as prevalent today outside of Central and South America. While it was the first psychedelic to enter the mainstream Western culture, other substances like LSD and psilocybin have since eclipsed it in popularity. However, mescaline is now being studied in the medical community, and is showing positive results in the treatment of addiction, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Peyote and San Pedro are still considered sacred plants by many of the remaining indigenous communities in Mexico and South America. Healing ceremonies and retreats are offered in different parts of the American continent, always guided by an experienced shaman. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with Ayahuasca in the Amazon, fraudulent retreats are not uncommon. Anyone considering ingesting Peyote or Ayahuasca for healing purposes should conduct extensive research before traveling to a retreat.