Peyote – Drug or Spiritual Plant?

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I have spent the past week researching the future of Peyote within the Huichol tribe in Mexico… thought it would be appropriate to share.

A lot of controversy surrounds ‘peyote’, the hallucinogenic plant that grows in northern Mexico and south-east America. Although it is recognised as a spiritual cactus that legally belongs to the Huichol indigenous community, recent misuse amongst non-indigenous individuals have led to increased speculation and concern regarding the effect that this emerging drug culture has on the future of the Huichol lifestyle. Part of its attraction as a drug is its mescaline substance, that shares similarities with LSD and acid, however it is traditionally associated and used within sacred rituals and religious ceremonies. But, the use of peyote as a ‘recreational’ drug is endangering the future of the plant as a spiritual symbol. It takes between 3-5 years for the plant to grow; therefore the emerging non-indigenous drug culture is threatening the extinction of peyote due to its rapidly diminishing stock.

Peyote has existed since 200 AD[i], accompanying the Huichol culture, which is famed as one of the “last great pre-Columbian civilizations”[ii]. Within this community, peyote is used as a spiritual plant, belonging to their daily routine as well as being used in spiritual ceremonies. If consumed in small amounts, it can prolong energy and suppress hunger allowing the Huicholes to work for longer; however, if consumed copiously, it enables the Huicholes to communicate and connect with their Gods. They are responsible users of this drug, embarking on an annual spiritual pilgrimage to Real de Catorce to harvest the plant. Often, during this pilgrimage, the Huicholes engage in ceremonies throughout the night, evoking and reinterpreting their traditional legend of the ‘Blue Deer’. For some, the peyote is considered ‘food of the Gods’, as the Huicholes, as practising animists, believe that their psychic abilities enable them to communicate with the spirits of plants and animals. This celestial experience in which the Huicholes induce an alternate state of mind, allows the community to connect with the souls of their previous ancestors.

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However, despite the consumption of peyote, the ceremonies are not built with the intention of stimulating themselves. “Peyote is their teacher”, also known as the ‘grandfather’, [iii]and it is part of their culture to gradually accustom themselves to the power of the drug. Often, younger members are even blindfolded as part of their initiation ceremonies; for fear that the hallucinations are too strong. It is an insular learning curve, in which the Huicholes must learn to appreciate and listen to the peyote, for it is a tradition that must be taught and transmitted across generations. It is believed that the consumption of peyote reveals the truth about oneself; therefore it is recommendable to have a pure clean mind to ensure the evocation of positive images. These rituals are often essential to their culture. They can be used for medicinal, curative purposes, to predict the weather or to provoke artwork. Their visions can serve as important symbols of their tradition and are often emulated throughout their jewellery and artisan products. This provides the Huicholes with an opportunity to creatively express themselves and recall their ancestors through their art.

Furthermore, the Huicholes’ disciplined use of peyote demonstrates their ability to shift between sacred and mundane realms. They recognise the importance of peyote within their culture as a means of gaining deep peace and serenity. Yet they remain in equilibrium with nature through their protection and careful maintenance of the land in which the peyote grows. Despite its slow growth, the Huicholes only extract the buttons of peyote once a year, hence why the laws defend the Huichol culture as they do not abuse the peyote plant. The ‘commission naciónal de areas naturales protegidas’ states that it is only legal to consume peyote with a native Indian or if one can prove a minimum of 25% Indian ancestry. This maintains that the indigenous culture be continued appropriately across generations and that it is conserved against the ever-encroaching modern world.

Unlike the Huicholes, there is an emerging culture of hostility towards the treatment of peyote. Increasingly, non-indigenous groups, both tourists and Mexicans alike, have been tempted by the plant. This has resulted in various hotspot locations, such as Real de Catorce and San Luis Potosi, which have catered to the tourist industry through the transformation of mountainous villages into Europeanised communities. Even Hollywood has seen the attraction of Real de Catorce, having filmed ‘The Mexican’ there with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt! Whilst it could be argued that the tourist industry brings money, there are undisputed concerns about the effect that the organised trips taking tourists into the desert have on the future of peyote as a religious symbol.

In 2011, 8 tourists were arrested in Real de Catorce for possession of 225 peyote heads[iv]. This confirms that tourists are visiting these locations with the sole purpose of seeking out the ‘mystic experience’[v]. Whilst many want to innocently emulate the sacred path, they are not fully aware of the potential health dangers that can be caused by peyote. Many non-indigenous individuals fall victim to the drug as they are not used to its effect nor do they use it respectfully. This has resulted in an increase of admission to psychiatric hospitals, with victims suffering under disastrous psychiatric conditions.  In 2009 alone, 98 patients were diagnosed with mental distortions after psychotropic substance consumption[vi]. This proves that peyote is dangerous for non-indigenous individuals as they run the risk of losing their minds. The long-term effects of the drug are still relatively unknown[vii], but it is worrying that there exists this fascination about the experimentation of the plant.

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So what is the appeal of peyote as a psychedelic drug? Experimenting with drugs is becoming an increasingly common aspect of adolescent behaviour[viii], therefore we can assume that this desire to experiment with peyote is appealing as it is a rare drug, located only in Mexico or the USA and it is renowned for its cool reputation through artist association, such as Ken Kesey who wrote “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”.   The desire to experience the alteration of the conscious perhaps may also be part of its allure. As described by Kira Salak, international writer and adventurer, peyote offers individuals the chance to enter the Huichol culture, and experience the ‘supernatural realm’[ix]. It is an innate part of our culture to discover the unknown, therefore perhaps through the consumption of peyote, tourists and non-indigenous Mexicans alike are eager to experience something ‘other worldly’ in an attempt to analyse and understand the Huichol culture. Their use of ceremonies, and indeed peyote, is far removed from modern society. Peyote as a drug allows users to experiment with their identity and seek personal truth. According to Susana Eger Valadez, an American lady who has married into the Huichol community, they “have a map to a dimension of consciousness that western culture has very little idea even exists”[x]; the map is peyote. This suggests that through the consumption of peyote, many believe that they too can access the magical properties associated with the Huichol culture, perhaps enlightening users to understand more about themselves and their purpose in life. This intrigue in the plant only confirms the western inability to understand the depth of the power of peyote, and perhaps leads us to question a lack of fulfilment in their own cultures.

In addition, non-indigenous users are often disrespectful of the plant. Not only are they unaware of the cultural implications of the drug, but they are ignorant when digging out the plant, with most users killing it in the process[xi]. By using peyote as a recreational drug, users are diminishing the stock of peyote which threatens the extinction of the Huichol culture, as the tourist route is located alongside that of the pilgrimage. What makes the Huichol culture so charming is its ability to maintain its traditions through its use of peyote. This could now be in jeopardy due to temporarily complacent tourists.

First and foremost peyote is legally recognised as a religious symbol, as it permits exclusive use amongst Huichol members. However, we cannot ignore that in the eyes of non-indigenous individuals, it is considered as a recreational drug to enjoy. Often, tourists do not appreciate the history of the peyote culture nor consider the long-term effects of their actions, as they frequently abuse it and infiltrate in the lives of this community. Already there are various projects that exist eager to preserve the Huichol culture, such as Valadez’s located in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental. However, there should be an increase in campaigning awareness of peyote to educate and deter potential users from willingly trespassing and consuming what is legally considered Huichol property.

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[i] Fikes, J. (1996). A brief history of the Native American Church. One Nation Under God. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from http://www.csp.org/communities/docs/fikes-nac_history.html

[vii] Halpern et al, 2005

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One response to “Peyote – Drug or Spiritual Plant?

  1. Pingback: 18/3/13 Is Peyote a Drug or a Spiritual Plant? | The Collected Works of Olivia Atkins

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