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Keepers of the Matrix: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Sacred Cacti

Mushrooms are en vogue, but what about the droves of psychedelic cacti?

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Updated May 5, 2021

DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here. Editorially reviewed by Madison Margolin.

Mushrooms are en vogue. In fact, they’ve pretty much become the emblem of the psychedelic revolution. But, they’re not the only natural and widely accessible entheogen that’s capable of bringing us eye-level with the mysteries of the universe. On par with psilocybin or ayahuasca, several types of succulents also have the power to lift reality’s veil and connect us to the divine, through naturally-occurring mescaline, 5-MeO-DMT, and DMT.

The DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in the Delosperma succulent is less intense because it’s hard to extract it into a smokable form. It’s generally taken orally. The fractal-essence and astral travel of DMT and 5-MeO is still present, but it’s not as all-consuming and easier to keep a tether to reality. 

Read: What Is Mescaline? A Guide to this Cactus-Derived Psychedelic

There’s a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Raoul Duke (played by Johnny Depp) spews chunks into a hotel toilet bowl and mumbles, “Goddamn mescaline. Why can’t they make it a little less pure?” While he’s talking about synthetic mescaline, the idea still applies: It’s easy to over do it because the onset of cacti-mescaline can take upwards of five hours to hit. The effects often include seeing patterns, hallucinations, feelings of stimulated euphoria, synesthesia, and watching scenes from your life project onto the backs of your eyelids. 

“Cacti are the keepers of the matrix,” says Max Montrose, a cacti educator and evangelist from Colorado. But what does that mean, exactly? “Eat a cactus,” he says. “It will explain everything to you—from why you’re here to the current state of the world.”

Illustration of purple hand next to san pedro cacti
Illustration by Silas Reeves for DoubleBlind

The use of sacred cacti traces back thousands of years. Peyote has a long history of shamanic use by Indigenous groups in Mexico and Native American tribes. Huachuma (pronounced “whock-uma”), or San Pedro cactus, was used by Indigenous communities in the Andes as far back as 4,000 years ago. The spirit of mescaline-containing cacti can radically alter one’s perception of the world through storied images that can feel like wisdom coming from an elder.

Montrose says these plants have a way of explaining the present to us from the perspective of the future. In other words, cacti can give us unique insights about the here and now, including how to be here now—an adage we all need a reminder of more than ever at this time in history. 

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But there’s a lot to know about cacti before jumping in, particularly when it comes to the racial and environmental impacts associated with Peyote. Here’s what you need to know before meeting your ancestors through the cacti portal.

San Pedro, Peruvian Torch, and Bolivian Torch

“Huachuma” is the native name for San Pedro, the long, columnar mescaline-containing cacti. It means “removing the head” in the indigenous language of the Quechua people who lived in the Andean highlands from Ecuador to Peru. “Huachuma” eventually became known among Spanish settlers, who invaded South America, as “San Pedro”—”Saint Peter” en Español—which is ironic since they associated the cacti with devil worship

“Saint Peter is the Catholic saint believed to hold the keys to the gates of heaven,” says Acacia Komodo, an entheogenic plant enthusiast from San Diego County. “And it’s true. Huachuma is the gateway to heaven.”

Often sipped as a tea, San Pedro actually refers to a few types of Trichocereus cacti—all of which can produce visions of sacred geometry, emotional breakthroughs, and heightened sensitivity. Aficionados differentiate the varietals by using their scientific names. Popular San Pedro strains include Trichocereus pachanoi (often just called “pachanoi”), which is the most common, as well as the Peruvian Torch cactus, (“peruvianus” for short), and the Bolivian Torch cactus, referred to as “bridgesii” by cacti heads.

One of the ongoing debates within the cacti community is over which San Pedro variety is the most potent. It’s argued that the pachanoi and peruvianus can be hit-or-miss. “They can have varying levels of psychedelic and psychoactive alkaloids,” says Dean Karras, a Trichocereus collector from Southern California. “Some of that has to do with how it was cultivated, seasonality, how much sun it got while growing, and the fertilizer it was given.”

While a number of online reports swear by the pachanoi and peruvianus, Karras says bridgesii’s are known for their consistently potent effects. “If you’re interested in exploring San Pedro cacti, it’s probably best to try several variants to figure out which one works best for you. That way, you can start to create an intentional relationship with that one plant. But it’s common knowledge among psychonauts that there are no ‘dud’ bridgesii’s.”

The Peyote Problem

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is the most well known psychoactive cactus. It was sucked into the psychedelic whirlwind of the Sixties counterculture—thanks, in part, to Carlos Castaneda’s 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan, which was later found to be a fictionalized account of the writer’s interactions with a mysterious Mexican-Indian shaman. But, tourism compounded with poaching, urbanization, silver mining, cattle ranching, and federal laws have all set the small, spherical cacti on a path to extinction

While fascinating, the history of peyote is complicated, frustrating, and oppressive. Having a simple conversation about the cacti can even mirror these qualities. That’s because you’re never really just talking about peyote—you’re discussing race, environmentalism, and politics. We can blame the US Government for this. No shock there. But from the time the cacti was introduced to the native tribes north of the border by Indigenous Mexicans in the mid-1800s, to recent attempts to decriminalize the cacti, one thing is certain: US policy consistently fails to consult Native Americans (for anything, but particularly) when it comes to crafting policies around peyote.

“Let’s call it what it is—it’s racist policy,” says Dawn Davis, a tribal person belonging to the membership of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho. “That’s exactly why peyote was made illegal in the first place.” Davis explains that one of the core issues with the reform of peyote laws is the absence of government to government relations that tribes have with states and cities. “It is being completely left out. So these cities that are passing resolutions are not abiding by the responsibility to have the government to government connection. They’re failing to acknowledge it altogether, and it’s demeaning to the sovereignty of tribes.”

Peyote is a religion—not just a cacti. It was a religious practice of Indigenous peoples long before the United States became a country. The US Government made Peyotism illegal in 1888 and it wasn’t until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 that Native Americans were given legal protections to practice their religion openly. That’s partly why the Native American Church (NAC) stands against non-Natives using or interacting with peyote at all: Colonial laws systematically eroded inidigenous freedom to engage in cultural and spiritual practices.

In 1991, the US Supreme Court made it illegal for people with less than 25 percent Native blood to use or interact with peyote in any way. This law creates a unique environmental problem: If no one outside the NAC is legally allowed to interact with the cacti, how will it survive? “With any other severely endangered plant, the solution would be to grow it and reintroduce it into the habitat and protect the habitat,” says Megan Escalona, a cacti nursery owner from Southern California. “Peyote is one of the only plants illegal to grow, which is interesting considering its alkaloid profile is quite similar to San Pedro, which is totally legal to grow.”

Prickly Legality

Conveniently, San Pedro is legal to purchase, cultivate, and possess. It takes between two to five years for it to reach maturity when growing from seed, and it can be purchased all over the country. But here’s the catch: It’s illegal to consume this cacti, as mescaline is considered a Schedule I drug.

Peyote, on the other hand, takes 10 to 20 years to grow and is completely illegal to purchase, cultivate, possess, pick out of the ground, and consume—unless you’re affiliated with a government-sanctioned peyote religion, such as the NAC. Otherwise, peyote is considered a Schedule I drug. 

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Davis explains that decriminalization gives people the false belief that they are allowed to possess peyote. “State law does not supersede federal law, so even though it’s now lumped in as a lowest priority offence in some places, it’s still a Schedule I drug and federally illegal.”

Aside from mescaline, both peyote and San Pedro have remarkably similar alkaloid profiles. Karras and Escalona argue that most people likely couldn’t differentiate between the effects of each cacti.

Those who wish to work with mescaline-containing cacti are urged by Natives to use San Pedro rather than peyote because it is not endangered or tied into an ancient religious practice most non-Natives know nothing about—and both cacti elicit similar experiences. Do people outside the NAC still use and grow peyote? Yes. Should they (or you)? That answer depends on who you ask. Most people will tell you it’s easier to work with San Pedro because it’s much easier to grow and propagate. But, before diving into a 12 to 15 hour mescaline trip that could put you eye-level with God or your ancestors, be sure to check your privilege—regardless of the cacti you consume.

DMT and 5-MeO-DMT Succulents: Delosperma

If you don’t fancy mescaline or sharp, unforgiving spines, you can also try working with Delosperma succulents—some are known to contain DMT or 5-MeO-DMT. Trout’s Notes on “Some Other Succulents,” one of the only recent investigations into the Delosperma genus, says the presence of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in most Delosperma are only present in trace amounts. However, evidence in the report suggests that during the summer some species of Delosperma produce higher amounts of 5-MeO-DMT (such as D. britteniae), while other species produce more DMT in the winter (such as D. ecklonis.). D. cooperi, D.acuminatum, and a few others are an example of how truly mystical this succulent genus is, as they have the highest levels of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT co-occurring year round.

There are 13 species currently on record within the Delosperma genus that contain varying levels of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT, according to a psychedelic plant research group from Lanzhou University in China. But, there’s a colossal void in research on the plant, specifically bioassays, so it’s probable the number of DMT-containing Delosperma is much higher. As of now, there are 162 species of Delosperma that we know of. 

On par with psilocybin or ayahuasca, several types of succulents also have the power to lift reality’s veil and connect us to the divine, through naturally-occurring mescaline, 5-MeO-DMT, and DMT.

Known as “Ice Plant” for the way its fuzzy hairs glisten in the sun, this perennial is native to South Africa. It’s said that D. saturatum was ground up and put into water by Zulu warriors who would clean their weapons and bathe in the solution. Trout’s Notes cites one report by Watt & Bryer-Brankwijk from 1962 that says D. herbeum was made into a “root decoction” by Indigenous people in Botswana. The powdered plant was then rubbed into “scarifications made over the vertebral joints” to make the “climacteric” strong and resistant to witchcraft. The lack of research and record of its use suggest that Delosperma was not used entheogenically by native people.

Like San Pedro, it is completely legal to buy, cultivate, and possess Delosperma. But in order to experience its psychedelic effects, you must extract the DMT and/or 5-MeO-DMT from the plant. In other words, you can’t just eat or smoke the plant leaves. That’s ultimately where the legality gets wonky because DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are considered Schedule I drugs.

There’s a lot of conflicting information about Delosperma’s alkaloid content, but according to Trout’s Notes we know that Oxalic acid is contained in most of these succulents. Oxalic acid is linked to kidney stones and ulcers, according to NIH. So, it’s unsafe to gnaw on cuttings or consume it without a purification extraction. 

Illustration of hand holding magnifying glass over peyote
Illustration by Silas Reeves for DoubleBlind

You can bypass this compound by using a fermentation/sweat method, which takes over a week to complete. This approach is reported to naturally reduce the Oxalic acid in the plant making it safer to consume. Following fermentation, the plant must sit in the sun until it’s cracker dry. This makes it easier to grind into a powder. The powder cannot be smoked or vaped because excess plant fat remains in the pulverized plant dust, but it can be consumed orally. The effects of the 5-MeO-DMT likely won’t be as powerful as smoking or vaping a pure oil extraction, as the digestive tract tends not to absorb 5-MeO-DMT and DMT as well—that’s why these compounds are typically smoked—but at least you’re avoiding harsh chemical DMT extraction, which can involve paint thinner or lighter fluid. 

We prefer our plant medicine without harsh solvents, thank you. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for support. If you’re looking for peer support during or after a psychedelic experience, contact Fireside Project by calling or texting 6-2FIRESIDE.
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