Mescaline As Therapy Is Getting Attention, Despite Stigma

The exploration of other types of psychedelics is common now, with MDMA, 5-MeO-DMT (toad venom), LSD all getting attention for different mental health treatment studies and different therapeutic interventions.

But mescaline, derived from either the San Pedro cactus (native to the Andean slopes of Ecuador and Peru), or the peyote cactus (found in the limestone soils of the Chihuahuan desert of southern Texas and northern Mexico) stands out as a different kind of psychedelic off the radar of the psychedelics industry—so far.

Though some research has examined the effects of mescaline in humans—for instance, Alexander Shulgin’s work in the later part of last century—clinical research investigating mescaline as a potential therapeutic aid has been lacking.

There are problems about working with mescaline. For example, to get the full effect of the San Pedro mescaline, it is estimated that someone would have to eat 750 grams of slimy, bitter plant material.

As derived from either plant, mescaline is physically difficult to take. Experiences and outcomes are harder to predict, and generally take too long from start to finish. But researchers know there is something significant here to discover and bring into the psychedelics industry.

Like many other psychedelics, mescaline has a long history of use. Indigenous people in North and South America used it for religious ceremonies dating back 5,700 years. That continues today. 

According to “Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic,” by Mike Jay, a scientific and medical historian, mescaline was isolated from the peyote cactus by a German chemist, Arthur Heffter in 1896, and was the first naturally occurring psychedelic alkaloid to be isolated in a lab. 

People who began using it then described bouts of nausea followed by long-lasting uncontrollable hallucinations. They reported experiencing racing heart and difficulties breathing. Depression. Insomnia. Delusions that turned into paranoia. 

Mescaline, it seems, developed a bad rap.

Mescaline was eventually synthesized in 1919 by a chemist at the University of Vienna, Ernst Spath, and researchers thought it could help them understand schizophrenia. It didn’t

Both the Nazis and Americans experimented with it during World War II as a sort of “truth serum.” That didn’t work either.

But there were people who challenged and added to the knowledge base of mescaline, famously Aldous Huxley who described his trip experiences in his 1954 book “Doors of Perception.” 

Today, more than 100 years after mescaline was first synthesized, there finally appears to be movement on the question of whether it can be used as another psychedelic plant for mental health treatment.

Native Americans interviewed by Michael Pollan for his book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” told him that their peyote ceremonies had done more to heal the wounds of genocide, colonialism, and alcoholism than anything else they had tried. 

Peyote is legal for Native Americans. Its use is constitutionally protected in the U.S. on the basis of religious freedom when used by the Native American Church. And it’s these ongoing experiences by native Americans that have become the basis for understanding the effects of mescaline, and a guide for more research.

In 1992, researchers studied the psychological, neuropsychological, and neurometabolic effects of mescaline in 12 normal men as a method of studying psychosis. They found that mescaline produced an acute psychotic state within 4 hours after drug intake. 

But was that the best use of this plant medicine? Shouldn’t mescaline get a better chance of finding its place in the booming psychedelics industry as a wellness treatment? Maybe. But there are still a number of practical issues to resolve.

While peyote is considered endangered in some areas of Mexico, it can be freely grown in any greenhouse. But it is a difficult plant to cultivate, and can take a long time to grow in a greenhouse (peyote takes up to 25 years to grow in the wild) 

The San Pedro cactus grows rapidly and is not an endangered plant. But not all San Pedro cacti have the same mescaline concentration, and two cacti grown from the same seed pod may have very different mescaline contents. To make estimating potency even more complicated, mescaline content can vary depending on when a plant was harvested or the conditions it was grown in.

Then there’s this: Peyote’s ongoing cultural significance to Native Americans played a role in recriminalizing it in Santa Cruz in 2021 after it was decriminalized two years earlier. Decrim advocates apologized to the Native American Church for their “lack of cultural sensitivity”

In the meantime, there are a handful of companies taking a shot at mescaline development. Lophos Pharma, a Toronto-based bioscience company recently acquired by Greenridez 2.0 Acquisitions Corp., specializes in peyote research, cultivation, preservation, and drug development, and will be working on treatments using peyote for weight loss, drug addiction, anxiety and depression.

Other leading psychedelics development companies such as Compass Pathways, MindMed, Xphyto Therapeutics Corporation and Numinus are all exploring mescaline product development.

There have been other encouraging developments recently that mescaline may be catching on. For example, there was a slight uptick in clinical studies about mescaline in 2021.

Presumably, with new agri-technology for cultivation, and better research about how the plant grows—perhaps about how to grow peyote faster, or how to control the mescaline content of the San Pedro cacti—mescaline, the first psychedelic, may become tomorrow’s psychedelics superstar. 

But for now, it’s been relegated as a sort of look-see, back-burner problematic substance that needs much more overall research. So.. stay tuned in.

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

One comment

  • bernard cleyet

    February 21, 2022 at 1:48 am

    I first extracted mescaline from peyote back in the 60’s using aqueous– organic solvent separation. This was after not enjoying the initial nausea from peyote. Later I and a few others used pure mescaline supplied by L. Light co. from England. I was also given a tray of growing mushroom. and finally several Lsd trips. Those under the supervision of a psychiatrist. In all cases the “trip” were illuminating and enjoyable. Somewhat later I synthesized a phenethylamine analog of mescaline. Forgetting it was ~ 10X potency, I suffered my only bad trip. Going and returning were however enjoyable. Curious that it has required fifty years for the medical community to discover what Leary was teaching.


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