Native American Church Peyotism and the Treatment of Alcoholism
John McClusky, M.S.W.
Arizona State University
Department of Social Work
The almost thirty year freeze on research into the beneficial uses of
psychedelics is slowly starting to thaw. Human subject studies have been
approved by the FDA for Phase 1 safety studies of ibogaine (a derivative
of a West African plant iboga) which may turn out to be an important new
treatment for heroine and cocaine addiction. Ketamine (a general
anesthetic, which at sub-anesthetic doses facilitates altered states of
consciousness), has been shown to facilitate abstinence from alcohol in
chronic alcoholics (Krupitsky 1992, 1997). Research is now underway in
Peru to study ayahuasca, a mixture of two Amazonian plants that may also
be of use in the treatment of addictions.
From time immemorial, indigenous peoples have used mind-altering plants to
facilitate spiritual growth and healing. Early petroglyphs in Northern
Africa indicate mushroom rituals (circa 12,000 B.C.) and early Indian
Vedic texts mention soma, a mind altering substance, also believed to be a
In the Northern American Continent the use of mushrooms dates back before
written history as well as the use of the peyote cactus (Lophophora
williamsii). Indigenous peoples as far back as 6,000 years ago probably
used peyote. That's when we find the first traces of man in the deserts of
Mexico. Peyote's use can be traced from central Mexico to the Southern
areas of Texas in the 1800s. By the end of the 1800s the ritual use of
this cactus had spread to the central parts of the United States and
started to be used widely as a pan-Native American religion. Today the
Native American Church of North America is the largest pan-Native American
religion in North America. Its ceremony is rooted in the native concept of
holistic health and harmony with nature. The use of peyote in a structured
religious setting, with the guidance of a socially sanctioned healer, has
been reported by some authors to be a powerful treatment for alcoholism
among Native Americans and a way of bringing balance back into the lives
of its participants.
Unfortunately, to date there have not been any controlled studies of the
use of peyote in this setting to treat alcoholism or other addiction
disorders. Most of the literature has consisted of anecdotal accounts of
its effectiveness (Albaugh & Anderson,1974; Bergman, 1971; Pascarosa, &
Futterman, 1976; Pascarosa, Futterman & Halsweig, 1976). The closest
research that has been done in this area is with LSD back in the 50s and
60s. Virtually all double-blind controlled studies that have been done
with LSD in the treatment of alcoholism have met mixed reviews by the
scientific community. There has been short term or "afterglow"
improvement in patients which diminishes with time (Halpern, 1996). It is
important to note that most of these studies only measured drug effect with
no appropriate clinical direction and support. (Smart & Strom, 1964;
Hollister et al., 1969; Ludwig et al., 1969; Mottin, 1973).
The Native American Church, on the other hand, offers a combination of
elements that used in conjunction with one another, form the basis of a
holistic treatment model that takes the entire individual into account.
Peyote is seen as a medicine by the native peoples who use it. They
believe that the controlled religious use of this medicine will allow them
to see the truth about their lives and that the peyote spirit is able to
give them guidance and direction. If you sit quietly and still the mind
the voice of the spirit will come through and give you guidance. If the
insights that you receive are not immediately apparent there are elders
and spiritual leaders who can interpret such matters. Peyote is another
one of the herb medicines in the Native American pharmacopoeia. It is
viewed as a healing agent and a psychic integrator. It has the ability to
integrate mind, body, spirit, and emotion in a safe, socially sanctioned,
The main elements of the ceremony have been variously described as the
master or guide, the ritual group session and the psychotropic drug.
Through the use of these elements, heightened susceptibility to
suggestion, cathartic expression and managed states of consciousness can
be achieved. This in turn leads to the lowering of defense mechanisms and
the breaking down of denial systems, which is a major component of any
treatment for substance abuse.
There has been some mention made in the literature of the pharmacological
addiction-blocking effect of peyote. In a 1977 article in Clinical
Toxicology, Dr. Kenneth Blum lays out a possible rationale for the
addiction-blocking qualities of peyote. His assumption is that certain
metabolites of peyote (isoquinolines) are identical to the metabolites
produced by heroin and alcohol. Dr. Blum did some of the pioneering work
into the connection between opiate addiction and late stage alcoholism. He
has said that his exploration into this area was left hanging with the
loss of research funding for all such projects in the late 70s. He
believes there is a connection between peyote and its use as an addictive
blocking treatment for alcoholism but also admits that more work needs to
be done (Personal Conversation, 1996; Blum, Futterman, & Pascarosa, 1977).
The debate over the mechanism for alcoholism has gone back and forth
within the scientific community. Isoquinolines and endorphins have been
the two main substances studied over the past twenty years, with a recent
growing interest in a dopamine connection. The question is divided and
research into the pharmacological effects of peyote is sorely lacking.
Here in Arizona, the Peyote Foundation, with the cooperation of the
Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), local Native
American Church leaders and myself are planning a study to measure the
effect of Native American Church peyotism on alcohol abuse. The details of
the patient recruitment and exact research design are in the planning
stages now. This would be the first controlled study of the effects of
Native American Church Peyotism on alcohol abuse: a first step in
affirming or denying the many anecdotal reports of sobriety achieved
through participation in the Church.
- Albaugh, B.J. & Anderson, P.O. (1974) "Peyote in the treatment of
alcoholism among American Indians." American Journal of Psychiatry,
- Bergman, R.L. (1971). "Navajo peyote use: Its apparent safety." Am J
Psychiatry, 128(6): 695-9.
- Blum, K., Futterman, S.L., & Pascarosa, P. (1977). "Peyote, a potential
ethno-pharmacological agent for alcoholism and other drug dependencies:
Possible biochemical rationale." Clinical Toxicology, 11(4): 459-72.
- Halpern, J. (1996). The use of hallucinogens in the treatment of
addiction. Addiction Research, 4 (2), 177-189.
- Hollister L.E., Shelton J., Krieger G. (1969). A controlled comparison of
lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and dextroamphetamine in alcoholics. Am J
Psychiatry, 125, 1352-1357.
- Krupitsky, E.M., Grinenko, A.Y., (1997) "Ketamine Psychedelic Therapy
(KPT): A Review of the Results of Ten Years Research." J. Psychedelic
Drugs, 29(2): 165-183.
- Krupitsky, E.M., Grinenko, A. Ya., Berkaliev, T. N., Paley, A. I., Petrov,
V.N., Moshkov, K. A., & Borodkin, Yu. S. (1992). The combination of
psychedelic and aversive approaches in alcoholism treatment: The affective
contra-attribution method. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 9, 99-105.
- Ludwig, A., Levine, J., Stark, L., Lazar, R. (1969). A Clinical Study of
LSD Treatment in Alcoholism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 59-69.
Mottin J. L., 1973. Drug induced attenuation of alcohol consumption. Q J
Stud Alcohol 34, 444-472.
- Pascarosa, P. & Futterman, S. (1976). "Ethnopsychedelic therapy for
alcoholics: Observations in the peyote ritual of the Native American
Church." J. Psychedelic Drugs, 8(3), 215-21.
- Pascarosa, P., Futterman, S., & Halsweig, M. (1976). "Observations of
alcoholics in the peyote ritual: A pilot study." Ann. NY Acad. Sci.,
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