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There is a fascination with psychedelic drugs that does not extend to other chemical substances; partly based on hallucinogens’ natural origins, partly for the way they induce altered states of consciousness that is commonly thought of as being both artistic and therapeutic. But some psychedelics, like mescaline, carry significant side effects and have serious potential for abuse.
Mescaline is a naturally occurring chemical compound that is found in a number of species of cacti, most notably the peyote cactus. In the indigenous Nahuatl language of Central Mexico, “peyote” can mean “divine messenger,” which hints at the role the plant has played in Native American ceremonial and medicinal rituals for as long as 5,500 years. The longstanding tradition of use among indigenous peoples is why mescaline is legal for use in religious contexts in tribal nations, even though the substance itself is a Schedule I drug in the United States. While respecting its use in tribal ceremonies, the Drug Enforcement Administration holds the position that mescaline has no acceptable medical use and presents too great a risk of physical and/or psychological abuse for it to be made available for purchase or prescription.
Inverse explains that, like most hallucinogens, mescaline is a serotonin receptor agonist; the drug stimulates the production of the serotonin neurotransmitter, which boosts positive moods and relaxation. Researchers writing in the Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity journal suggest that mescaline excites the neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, leading to the well-known psychedelic effects.
Nonetheless, mescaline is thought of as one of the more milder hallucinogens; it is as much as 3,000 times less potent than LSD and even 30 times less potent than a similar naturally occurring psychedelic like psilocybin. It is also bitter to taste, which might explain why it is not as addictive as other hallucinogens and, by extension, why there has not been as much study on mescaline abuse (compared to more scientific attention being paid to other drugs). For this reason, mescaline is often passed over in favor of stronger hallucinogens at music festivals and other events where drug consumption is widespread.
The DEA holds the position that mescaline has no acceptable medical use and presents too great a risk of physical and/or psychological abuse for it to be made available for purchase or prescription.
Mescaline takes about one or two hours to take effect, which is another reason why it is not a heavily favored psychedelic. Its effects, however, are consistent with those of similar hallucinogens.
Users experience very different sensory and perceptual experiences, such as time passing more slowly, colors appearing brighter, sounds seeming sharper, or even “seeing” sounds and “hearing” colors. Some users experience hallucinations, or feeling a sense of almost tangible connectedness to objects and the world around them. They may feel weightless or extremely heavy to the point of immobility, or anything in between.
Changes in thought patterns may occur. A person taking mescaline might have difficulty focusing on an object or a single idea; thought processes often become easily and vividly derailed. Users often experience drastic and unpredictable mood swings. This might negatively affect those who are prone to anxiety; in such cases, the episodes of anxiety might last as long as a day or so.
One of the more risky side effects of mescaline abuse is the danger that comes from the psychoactive hallucinations. The delusions can be very convincing, so much so that someone having eaten mescaline might actually react to something that is not real. This can place the person, or people around them, at risk. People under the effects of mescaline will also struggle with problem-solving and decision-making; they feel like their minds are expanding, which can induce them into doing things that are actually not safe.
In terms of the physical effects of mescaline, a user might feel an increase in blood pressure and body temperature, rapid heartbeat, rapid and shallow breathing, and obvious difficulty in motor coordination (even walking in a straight line might be difficult). Other side effects can include a loss of appetite, fever, chills, and pupil dilation.
Despite the bitter taste and relatively low potency, tolerance to mescaline can develop very quickly. This means that someone who uses mescaline no longer gets the same psychedelic effects from their usual dose, so they take more and more mescaline to try and chase the original sensation. The returns are always diminishing, but the result is that the user becomes more and more dependent on the mescaline to achieve that sense of bliss and transcendence.
Notwithstanding the risk of a user needing greater amounts of mescaline, the plant presents no obvious withdrawal risks to users. Withdrawal normally occurs when a person’s body has become so accustomed to the chemical and psychological effects of a drug that it cannot function without the continued presence of the drug. Going without the drug for any period of time results in painful, distressing physical and psychological symptoms, which, if left uncontrolled, can compel the person to resume the substance abuse. The symptoms can also be dangerous in their own right.
With mescaline, on the other hand, what little research has been conducted into the drug has not discovered any significant withdrawal symptoms if users stop consuming it. Anecdotal reports have suggested that users can experience mild feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression when they stop using the drug, and there have been isolated reports of more severe psychological withdrawal effects. In rare cases, mescaline users may be at risk of developing hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, a condition wherein the standard psychedelic effects of mescaline are present even though the drug has not been taken. The effects might take place when the user is doing something that requires concentration and coordination; this could interfere with job performance or academic work, or it could put lives in danger if heavy machinery or motor vehicles are involved.
However, such extreme cases effects of mescaline abuse are uncommon. Unlike more widespread drugs, physical withdrawal has not been associated with mescaline abuse. When the PLOS One journal conducted a study on the topic of “Psychedelics and Mental Health,” researchers determined that mescaline has a relatively low potential for abuse, and that even “individuals who chronically use [drugs like] mescaline do not have an increased risk for the development of any mental health disorder.” Other research has even suggested that regular users of mescaline like Native Americans are at a decreased risk for developing mental health problems.
This has led to speculation that mescaline can be used in clinical settingsfor the treatment of certain mental health or substance use disorders, but there is yet no accepted or legal medical application for peyote outside of Native American religious settings. There has even been a suggestion that peyote could be used in the treatment of alcoholism.
One area of risk is if pregnant women use mescaline. The alkaloids in the drug can cause birth defects to the unborn child; mescaline can also cause contractions in the uterus, which might lead to miscarriage or even stillbirth. For this reason, WebMD says that peyote use during pregnancy is unsafe. Another possible danger is if a user combines mescaline with other drugs, especially alcohol; the alkaloids in mescaline are similar to those produced by the brain during intoxication, which might lead to stronger and quicker inebriation.
As with most psychedelics, the drugs themselves pose a relatively small threat to physical or psychological wellbeing, but their potency is such that users may act in risky and dangerous ways. Mescaline is not the most dangerous substance to take, but it is a powerful psychedelic, with effects that are not fully studied or understood.
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