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Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small spineless cactus whose native region extends from the southwestern United States (including the states of Texas and New Mexico) through central Mexico. Peyote contains a large spectrum of phenethylamine alkaloids, the principal of which is mescaline. Mescaline can be extracted from peyote or produced synthetically. All Lophophora species are extremely slow growing, often taking up to thirty years to reach flowering age (at the size of about a golf ball, not including root) in the wild. Human cultivated specimens grow considerably faster, usually taking from six to ten years to go from seedling to mature flowering adult. Due to this slow growth and over-harvesting by collectors, peyote is considered to be in danger of extinction in the wild.

The top of the cactus above ground, also referred to as the crown, consists of disc-shaped buttons that are cut from the roots and dried. These buttons are generally chewed, or boiled in water to produce a psychoactive tea. The effective dose for mescaline is about 0.3 to 0.5 grams (equivalent to about 5 grams of dried peyote) and the experience lasts about 10 to 12 hours. When combined with appropriate set and setting, peyote is reported to trigger states of deep introspection and insight which have been described as being of a metaphysical or spiritual nature. At times these can be accompanied by rich visual or auditory effects (see synesthesia).

Peyote, botanical drawing.
Peyote, botanical drawing.

From earliest recorded time, peyote has been used by indigenous peoples, such as the Huichol peoples of northern Mexico and the Navajo in the southwestern United States as a part of traditional religious rites. In the late 1800's the tradition began to spread northward as part of a revival of native spirituality under the auspices of what came to be known as the Native American Church, whose members refer to peyote as "the medicine", and use it to combat alcoholism and other social ills. The Native American Church is one among several religious organizations that use peyote as part of their religious practice.

United States federal law (and many state laws) protect the harvest and consumption (but not cultivation) of peyote as part of "bonafide religious ceremonies" (federal law specifically exempts only the Native American Church, while most state laws exempt any general "bonafide religious activity"). These laws notwithstanding, religious or therapeutic use not under the aegis of the Native American Church has often been targeted by local law enforcement agencies, and non-natives attempting to establish spiritual centers based on the consumption of peyote as a sacrament or as medicine, such as the Peyote Foundation in Arizona, have been prosecuted.

A resurgence of interest in the use of peyote was spawned in the 1970s by accounts of its use in the early works of writer Carlos Castaņeda. Don Juan Matus, the pseudonym for Castaņeda's instructor in the use of peyote, used the name "Mescalito" to refer to an entity that purportedly can be sensed by those using peyote to gain insight in how to live one's life. Later works of Castaņeda indicated that the use of such psychotropic substances was not necessary to achieve heightened awareness and de-emphasized the use of peyote as a general means to achieve this end. Castaņeda's writing has been largely discredited as serious anthropological research and is considered by most to be works of fiction.

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