There it was! I couldn’t believe they had it. Towering majestically above the other cacti and succulents in its periphery stood the San Pedro cactus. And this was at my local botanical conservatory. 

Did anyone else in the room know what it was or that it contained mescaline? Would they have known what mescaline is? Or that this same sacred cactus can reportedly be found for sale in unexpected big-box retailers? Regardless of the obliviousness of those around me, this San Pedro was the unforeseen prize in the collection, and the highlight of our visit.

The magnificence of our marveling at the powerful plant lay in the divinations of a different world, one not so hateful, racial, delusional, political, mental or governmental. Not a grandiose request of utopia, but rather, a more creative, efficient and happy humanity devoid of the decay that pollutes our environment. 

Connectivity Through the Cactus

The San Pedro Cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi or Trichocereus pachanoi) is native to the Andes Mountains in South American, including high-altitude places like Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Like peyote, the San Pedro cactus contains mescaline, an entheogenic molecule often labeled as empathogenic and “life-changing,” hence its use in shamanic and private rituals for mental and physical wellness for thousands of years. Dried skins from San Pedro cacti were discovered and subsequent testing reportedly placed their age near 2200 BCE. Empathogens prompt feelings of connectivity with fellow Earthlings as well as other sentient beings populating the Pale Blue Dot.

The dry weight of mescaline in 14 San Pedro cactus cultivars was measured to be between 0.05 to 4.7 percent. The authors reported that E. pachanoi from Peru had the highest mescaline concentration. The cactus also contains other active compounds such as lophophine, a psychoactive molecule reported by Alexander Shulgin to result in “a peaceful elevation of mood, the generation of an euphoric state, and the enhancement of visual perception especially in the color sense.” There are other Echinopsis cacti that resemble the San Pedro, such as the Peruvian Torch, but these plants have different molecular compositions, and therefore, different psychoactive properties. 

Peter, Peter Mescaline Eater

Andean natives are said to call the San Pedro materia prima, which literally means “raw material,” but is also said to translate to “the primordial soup of the cosmos.” San Pedro means Saint Peter, who was said to “hold the keys to heaven.” One version of a Saint Peter legend says that the Christian God hid the keys to the kingdom from Peter who, perhaps being a bit devilish, located them using the psychedelic cactus. 

But you know how legends go, and as you can imagine, there would be some weird and captivating consequences to Christianity if Peter really was eating mescaline. (Of course, biblical history suggests Peter would’ve denied it.) Most other versions discuss the San Pedro in a more symbolic demeanor, saying that, like Peter, the cactus can unlock “heaven,” whatever that might mean to you. Other, older names, however, like aguacolla are said to denote a “hidden water” or portal to somewhere else.

The Formula

Shaman called curanderos utilize cimora, a ceremonial elixir made from San Pedro cacti, to help diagnose diseases and to ominously “make oneself owner of another’s identity.” The preparation of a San Pedro drink involves boiling the chopped cactus in water, adding in any other desired botanicals, filtering out the biomass once those plants have been extracted, and continuing to heat the liquor until the decoction reduces to half its starting volume. Some suggest that a 2- to 3-inch-thick, 10-inch-long piece of cactus represents a normal serving size per user. Others report an active, powdered dose as being between 20 and 50 grams of dried cactus skin.

The Trip

The journey one embarks upon when ingesting the San Pedro cactus is said to involve a sense of disembodied flight. Rather amazingly, a wonderful guide dedicated to this plant postulates that the legendary Nazca lines in Peru were essentially maps for these travels. If you haven’t ever viewed the Nazca lines, take a quick look. I’ll wait… 

The psychedelic experience from ingestion of the San Pedro is said to last for approximately 10 hours. Cactus eaters or imbibers report possible drowsiness early in the experience and a visual and tactile sensory explosion that can make everyday things much more interesting and worthy of contemplation. As is reported for many other plant-based psychedelics, purging might occur when ingesting the cactus flesh.

The Science Supporting Mescaline

Mescaline is generally considered to be a “safe” substance. In 2007, 116 peyote or mescaline exposures (out of > 2,400,000 million drug exposures) were reported to poison control centers in the United States. Another study published in Clinical Toxicology evaluated cases involving adverse reactions to mescaline between 1997 and 2008. Of those cases considered, just 31 met the criteria for further evaluation. There were no life-threatening symptoms; rather, user experiences included mild to moderate symptoms like increased heart rates, which lasted for 24 hours or less and didn’t require medical intervention beyond support or sedation. Keep calm and journey on.

Fortunately, we needn’t rely strictly on indigenous knowledge when it comes to mescaline. Scientists have seen the point in studying this useful molecule. In 1966, for example, researchers enlisted 27 male participants representing quite diverse occupations, like engineers, physicists, mathematicians, architects, a furniture designer and a commercial artist. Of the 27, 19 men had no prior experience with psychedelics. These men had to come up with novel, creative solutions to specific problems that they had selected. Some had worked for weeks or months on these problems and didn’t generate any acceptable solutions. Then, they were given 200mg of mescaline.

In all, 44 problems were brought to the table, and of these, 20 had new possibilities opened for further study, 10 had partial solutions that were being implemented and evaluated further, six had solutions approved for construction or production, and two had complete working models. There were only four problems for which the participants didn’t create solutions. Thus, this early study suggests that psychedelics might acutely improve creativity, something currently touted with other psychedelics like psilocybin via the growing interest in microdosing.

Several studies evaluated the effects of mescaline on an assortment of animals, including mice, fish and monkeys. Low doses of mescaline increased locomotor activity in mice. Zebrafish were given doses of mescaline between 5 and 20mg/L, which led to increased “top-activity” in the novel tank diving test (typically, zebrafish will swim to the bottom of a new tank), reduced immobility and disruption of swimming patterns, and 20mg/L resulted in increased shoaling behavior. The zebrafish seemed to prefer the community when given mescaline, versus isolation.

Researchers allowed rhesus monkeys the opportunity to self-administer mescaline. Self-dosing of mescaline and the placebo saline solution generated similar results. While three monkeys briefly continued to self-administer mescaline, the psychedelic’s reinforcing effects didn’t last. The authors pointed out the agreement with other experiments that have illustrated that “classic psychedelics lack reinforcing properties, supporting the conclusion that these drugs do not lead to dependence or addiction.”

The Future of Cacti

Cultural interest in psychedelics is surging once again. This time, there’s a lot more focus on the scientific and medicinal aspects that are critically needed for a physically and mentally suffering Earth. As with humanity’s rekindled passion and need for cannabis, what we stand to gain from the study and use of psychedelics like the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus could directly affect our future and our evolution. Perhaps humankind can transform into kind humans.

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