What Are Peyote and Magic Mushrooms?

Users often temporarily lose their ability to discern reality from the imagined.
Peyote and magic mushrooms are two examples of naturally occurring hallucinogenic drugs, or hallucinogens. They’re called hallucinogens because of their ability to cause those who use them to hallucinate. In a survey released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2014, researchers found that 1.6 percent of eighth graders and 4.5 percent of twelfth graders admitted to having used hallucinogens in the past year. Hallucinogenic drugs are also known as psychedelic or psychoactive drugs for their psychic—mental and emotional—effects on people who use them. Users often temporarily lose their ability to discern reality from the imagined. They may have visions some might describe as “spiritual,” “religious,” or “transcendent.” These visions may include occurrences such as the following: Walls may appear to bend, fingers and toes may seem to disappear, or colors may grow brighter and more vivid. Time slows down, or seems to stop altogether. All kinds of strange things happen, all of it imagined, and all of it due to the drugs.

In nature, peyote is a cactus. It’s very small—just a few inches tall—and has button-like caps that contain the chemical mescaline. Mescaline is the chemical that causes peyote users to hallucinate. Mescaline can also be made synthetically (produced artificially) in a lab.

Magic mushrooms are also found in the wild. Small and brown or tan, they contain the hallucinogenic chemical psilocybin. Like mescaline, psilocybin can be artificially produced in a laboratory.

Peyote and magic mushrooms are often referred to by their street names. Some alternate names you may have heard for peyote, according to drug law enforcement officials, are bad seed, britton, hikori, hikuli, half moon, hyatari, P, nubs, seni, and tops. Slang words for mescaline (while it’s found in peyote, mescaline is often referred to on its own, or in reference to its artificially produced version) include cactus, cactus buttons, cactus joint, mesc, mescal, mese, mezc, moon, musk, and topi. Other common names for magic mushrooms are ’shrooms, boomers, god’s flesh, hippieflip, hombrecitos, las mujercitas, little smoke, Mexican mushrooms, musk, and silly putty.

How Hallucinogens Affect Your Brain

Hallucinogens work through their effects on the human nervous system—the “electrical” wiring that allows us to see, smell, touch, and hear, as well as to think, reason, and feel emotions. The nervous system includes the brain, the spinal cord, and all of the nerve cells (neurons) associated with them that extend to all parts of the body. It is easily altered under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Hallucinogens prevent the nervous system from functioning normally.

Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are natural chemicals that allow communication between neurons. When you touch something with your finger, a message of “hard” or “soft” or “mushy” is sent from your fingertip to your brain. Neurotransmitters, which include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and many others, transmit signals from cell to cell. They take a message, or electrical impulse, from one neuron, then latch onto the next neuron at a receptor where the signal can continue on its way.

To work, a neurotransmitter from a “sending” neuron must connect with a one-of-a-kind receptor on a “receiving” neuron. The message travels almost instantaneously along millions of neurons until it reaches the brain. In the case of motor functions—when the brain sends a finger a signal to move, for example—the exact opposite takes place. The message is sent down a chain of neurons, from brain to spinal cord, to arm, to hand, to finger, using neurotransmitters to facilitate travel. It is a complicated system, but when things are working normally, it’s practically flawless.

The hallucinogenic chemicals in peyote and magic mushrooms—mescaline and psilocybin—block the normal workings of the nervous system’s natural neurotransmitters by binding to receptors in the brain. With receptors blocked, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are unable to do their job. Signals become mixed, and sensations are scrambled. Mood, understanding, and perceptions are all severely altered.

Historical Uses of Peyote and Magic Mushrooms

Unlike LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) or PCP (phencyclidine), two artificially produced hallucinogenic drugs that first gained popularity in the 1960s, peyote and magic mushrooms have been used for thousands of years.

Long before Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas, Aztecs in the area that is now Mexico used peyote as their primary sacrament in religious ceremonies and rituals. In later years, other Native American tribes in Mexico and throughout North America (including the present-day United States and Canada) did the same, turning to both peyote and magic mushrooms for the hallucinogenic effects—in order to induce spiritual enlightenment and mystical visions—and for healing. These tribes included the Huichol and the Navajo. Peyote, a cactus, grew mainly in northern Mexico and in what today is the southwestern United States. Hallucinogenic mushrooms could be found throughout the continent.

Over the years, use of peyote and magic mushrooms for religious purposes continued among native peoples, even as their possession and use by non-Indians became prohibited by law in the 1900s. Today, many Native Americans in both the United States and Canada use peyote, especially during cultural ceremonies.

In the 1960s, many non-native people began using hallucinogens for non-cultural and non-religious reasons. Experimental drug usage became extremely popular and reached its height during the Vietnam War. Hallucinogens were known as peace drugs, and users turned to them to “trip out,” or escape from the everyday realities of warfare, conflict, and violence. They also used them to “open their minds” to new realities and to gain insight into the many hard-to-answer questions of the time. LSD, mushrooms, peyote, and other hallucinogens became the drugs of choice for many.

In November 2020 Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to allow licensed professionals to manufacture and administer psilocybin for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and addiction. People can use psilocybin at regulated treatment centers, but will not be able to buy it in stores or take the drug home.