Peyote Bends But Doesn't Alter Minds
By Neil Osterweil, Senior Associate Editor, MedPage Today
Published: November 04, 2005
Reviewed by Robert Jasmer, MD; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco
BELMONT, Mass., Nov. 4 - There seem to be no mental or behavioral problems associated with long-term use of the hallucinogenic substance peyote (mescaline), at least among Native Americans.
That's the conclusion of researchers at the McLean Hospital here and Harvard Medical School, who found that among the Navajo who take peyote legally as part of their religion, long-term drug users did just as well as non-users on standard neuropsychological tests. On some measures, they did even better.
The study, led by John H. Halpern, M.D., of the McLean Hospital, was partly funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse. It was published in the November issue of Biological Psychiatry.
According to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994, legitimate members of federally recognized tribes are permitted to use peyote, a Class 1 controlled substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration, as part of their religious rituals. In 2004, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that anyone identified as a member of a Native American Church, regardless of race, could use peyote as part of a religious ritual without being prosecuted by the state.
An estimated 300,000 Native Americans, including about 80,000 members of the Navajo Nation, are legally permitted to ingest peyote cactus (which contains the hallucinogenic compound mescaline) as part of all-night prayer ceremonies that are central to the practice of the Native American Church.
They may attend prayer ceremonies as often as two or three nights in a week or as infrequently as once a year, but most members attend on average one ceremony a month, said Dr. Halpern. Many ingest peyote hundreds or thousands of times in their lifetime.
To examine the effects of peyote, the investigators recruited three groups of Navajos from the ages of 18 to 45. There were 61 Native American Church members who reported ingesting peyote on a least 100 occasions, 36 recovering alcoholics who reported a history of drinking more than 50 12-ounce beers or their equivalent per week for at least five years, and a comparison group of 79 people who reported minimal use of any substance.
Following a breathalyzer exam to assure that they were alcohol-free at the time of testing, the recruits were subjected to a battery of 10 neuropsychological tests, including subtests looking at anxiety, depression, loss of behavioral and/or emotional control, and life satisfaction.
"We found no evidence that these Native Americans had residual neurocognitive problems," Dr. Halpern said. "Despite lifelong participation in the peyote church, they performed just as well on mental tests as those who had never used peyote."
In fact, peyote users scored significantly better than non-users on the "general positive affect" and "psychological well-being" measures of the Rand Mental Health Inventory (RMHI), a standard instrument used to diagnose psychological problems and determine overall mental health.
In contrast, alcohol abusers did significantly worse than the comparison group (non-users) in all measures of the RMHI.
Dr. Halpern, who has spent several years living and working in Native American communities, said that the study provides scientific support for the ancient practice of peyote use strictly as a religious sacrament.
Yet Dr. Halpern and senior author Harrison G. Pope Jr., M.D., director of McLean's biological psychiatry laboratory, also cautioned that the results of the study are not generalizable to other hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD.
"The hallucinogens that are typically abused on the street by substance abusers are LSD and psilocybin, which is the principal component of mushrooms," Dr. Pope said in an interview. "Those are indole molecules, and an indole is a different type of molecule from mescaline, which is the hallucinogenic component of peyote. So even if it is true that peyote has no long-term neuropsychological toxicity, you still cannot leap to the conclusion that indoles lack such toxicity."
- Of course, the first thing to do after a such 'discovery' (is anyone really surprised?) is minimize its generalizability. Its not hard to pull from this (in fact, it seems pretty damned close to tautological) that whatever particular neurochemical effect mescaline has on the human brain is not likely to have negative effects, even after long-term use. The next step would be to ask what significant differences of neurochemical effect exist between mescaline and the major indoles.
The quote purposely sidesteps the question by referring not to effect, but to the molecule, which is 'different' in some unspecified, mysterious and probably damaging way. Another question might be whether any evidence that the indoles produce 'such toxicity' (that is, the toxicity that mescaline doesn't produce) exists?