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The San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) is a rapidly-growing columnar-shaped cactus native to South America. Found growing in the high elevation regions of the Andes Mountains, it has been used to make traditional medicine and traditional veterinary medicine for over 3,000 years.

Although the San Pedro cactus plant itself is not well known outside of South America, one of its derivative alkaloids is known around the world: mescaline.

What is Mescaline?

Mescaline, known chemically as trimethoxyphenethylamine, is a psychedelic alkaloid extracted from the San Pedro cactus plant. It has hallucinogenic effects that are comparable to those of both peyote and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

It was first isolated and identified in 1897 by the German chemist named Arthur Heffter. In 1919, an Austrian chemist who specialized in natural products named Ernst Spath was the first to synthesize it. It became famous, or infamous, during the 1960s when the psychedelic drug culture took root in the United States.

It is in the same genus as peyote which has been used by North American Indians and Mexican Indians for at least 5700 years in religious ceremonies.

How Mescaline Is extracted from the San Pedro Cactus

To make mescaline, the top part of the San Pedro cactus is cut off and discarded. The large tap root is dug out of the ground, revealing a ring of green photosynthesizing area where new growth, or “heads” occurs. These heads are cut off and dried on racks. When completely cured, they have a disk-like shape similar to buttons.

Most mescaline users chew these buttons in order to get the desired hallucinogenic effects. Others prefer to soak them in water to make a tea-like drink. A third way to ingest mescaline is through capsule form. The drug has a bitter taste, so users outside the native Indian cultures often grind the buttons into a powder to be used in capsules. Taking mescaline through a pill avoids the unpleasant experience of having to taste it.

Is Mescaline derived from the San Pedro Cactus legal in the US?

After centuries of unrestricted use by Native American cultures across the western part of the United States, mescaline use was made illegal in 1970. Under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act, it was categorized as a Schedule I hallucinogen.

A year later, mescaline was prohibited internationally by the 1971 Convention of Psychotropic Substances.

The only legal exceptions to mescaline use are those granted to certain Native American religious groups for use in their religious ceremonies and for scientific and medical research.

However, the use of mescaline in religious ceremonies was thought by many to be simply a way around the law rather than an integral part of any structured religion. After numerous court challenges, the current state of the law holds that the federal government may not restrict use of mescaline or peyote in these religious ceremonies but individual states do have a right to restrict its use.