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Peyote Use in the Treatment of Alcoholism in the Native American Church


Peyote Buttons

by Krystle Cole – September 3, 2009

From the literature available, it can be deduced that peyote use among the NAC decreases alcoholism rates. To be culturally competent, those in the counseling field should be open to recommending that their Native American clients, who possess a low level of acculturation, try becoming members of the NAC as a part of an integrated alcohol abuse treatment plan. Peyote ceremonies are self-contained, time-limited experiences that, if pursued properly, can be used to produce a reliably healing outcome.

Membership in the NAC requires abstinence and facilitates resocialization

One of the main tenets of the NAC code is abstinence from alcohol and drugs (Garrity, 2000). This means that when a person becomes a member of the NAC, they become part of a community that abstains from alcohol use. Which, in turn, helps them abstain from alcohol use. This view of abstinence is in agreement with most widely accepted 12-step substance abuse treatment programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

This “new” set of friends can facilitate resocialization. Pascarosa et al. (1976) described that:

Insights and resolutions of recovered alcoholics are consistently reinforced between meetings. Often members of the church in one area will come together during the week for a drum tie. This is an informal gathering, usually at someone’s house, where members tie a water drum with hide and sing peyote chants for a few hours. It is at such gatherings that the resocialization of new members progresses under relaxed conditions. Recovered alcoholics talk openly about their problems and receive strong support from their new friends. Indeed, the cardinal points of the Native American Church are faith, hope, charity, and sobriety.

Albaugh and Anderson (1974) point out that, “The NAC is effective in reducing feelings of alienation and isolation for many persons by allowing safe, cathartic expression of inner feelings. The NAC also helps the alcoholic to develop a sense of personal identity and clear relationships to his external world.”

Beyond all of this, it is important to note that Albaugh and Anderson (1974) also contend that the growth and spread of the NAC throughout the United States, “could prove to be a major factor in the reduction of anomie among American Indians and a vehicle through which acculturation may be facilitated.”

NAC membership is empowering

Many NAC members have found that peyote ceremonies help them feel like they have power over the alcohol. This is because past alcohol use is what has compelled a large number of people to become members of the NAC in the first place. Garrity (2000) explained that “power is highly elaborated within this healing tradition” (p. 529). During ceremonies, the road man will ask the creator to help the person by speaking to them through the peyote, as it acts as a messenger between the individual and the creator. He noted that, “Patients are cured by partaking of peyote and absorbing its ‘pure healing power’. The ceremonies also give them hope for transformation and new ways of living (Garrity, 2000).

NAC membership is conducive of self-understanding

Garrity (2000) mentioned that “peyote offers the opportunity for self-understanding through ritualized introspection and self-examination” (p. 529). This introspection and self-examination can lead an individual to new understandings about their situation in life and the repercussions of their actions, very similar to many of the treatment modalities involved in traditional psychiatry, family systems, and group therapy (Pacarosa et al., 1976). Garrity (2000) explained that, “Road men encourage participants to ‘ask the medicine’ or ‘listen to what the medicine tells you’ about a certain problem. They point out how the ‘power of the peyote healing experience can set a person on another course – a life of dedication in deeper sense'” (p. 529-530). Pacarosa et al. (1976) described the Roadman as “not unlike the Western psychotherapist” and that he “serve[s] as a guidepost of the road of life” (p. 519-520).

Peyote’s pharmacological action may explain why it helps alcohol addiction

Blum et al. (1977) provided information that highlighted the possibility that alkaloids present in the peyote cactus, other than the psychoactive constituent mescaline, are “purported to be pharmacologically similar to the neuroamine-derived alkaloids found in the brain during alcohol intoxification” (p. 468). More study is needed to prove this assertion unequivocally, although it still is a possible explanation for the abrupt cessation of alcohol use that many peyote users experience.

Peyote use can induce peak experiences and the afterglow effect

Another explanation for the abrupt cessation of alcohol use among peyote users are peak experiences. The emotional healing caused by the peak experiences induced by the use of entheogens can occur during one session, while this same healing could take years in traditional psychotherapy. According to Grof (1993), “Non-ordinary states of consciousness tend to work like an inner radar system, seeking out the most powerful emotional charges and bringing the material associated with them into consciousness where they can be resolved” (p. 206). Yensen and Dryer (2007) explained that:

Peak experiences are profound experiential portals that lead out of the angry, empty trap of despair, and false gratification. Instead of the illusion of escape that a mood-altering drug might induce biochemically, a peak experience is a fundamental shift in consciousness, a shift that profoundly motivates positive change (p. 25).

Lastly, peak experiences can induce what many researchers refer to as the afterglow. According to Halpern (1996), “anti-craving properties” may be present across the entire class of hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD, ibogaine, and peyote. He explained that, “Potential efficacy may be tied to their agonism and antagonism at specific serotonin receptor sites. After the administration of a hallucinogen, there is a positive ‘afterglow’ lasting weeks to months which might be extended through repeated dosing” (p. 1). Albaugh and Anderson (1974) observed that this afterglow lasted 7 to 10 days among Native American alcoholics that participated in peyote meetings within NAC.

Alcohol treatment with Peyote Ceremonies in practice

The Peyote Foundation

The Peyote Foundation, located in Arizona and co-founded by Leo Mercado, currently holds NAC peyote ceremonies for members of the NAC and members of the Peyote Foundation, many of whom are there for help with overcoming substance addiction. According to Mercado (1997):

One strong factor in the success of the Native American Church is the support group of fellow participants which goes along with each ceremony. The depth of shared worship, problems prayed for, solutions offered, old pain relinquished, and self-worth retrieved, can affect highly charged bonds among communicants. New friends and relations are emotionally established by the very act of participating actively in each other’s therapy and sacred ritual. It is quite common to take on “adopted” parents, uncles, brothers, sisters, and nephews over a period of time. This Native American Church family becomes closely intertwined in the realities of each other’s daily lives, as well as in the sharing of their shortcomings, their hopes, and their dreams. This extended family exists as an ongoing support system, oftentimes more present and consistent than even blood-relations who do not participate in the spiritual unfolding which occurs under the tipi canvas (p. 4-5).

The Na’Nizhoozhi Center

The Na’Nizhoozhi Center, a progressive treatment facility for Native Americans located in New Mexico, is another example of NAC membership successfully being applied to the Native American substance abuse population. The center currently offers conventional therapy, self-help programs like AA, and traditional native healing ceremonies. The native ceremonies take place in a yard behind the clinic where there are hogans, sweat lodges, and a tepee that is reserved for NAC sessions. Even though peyote is not given to clients during on-site church sessions, staff members often encourage some of their clients to participate in regular peyote ceremonies once they leave the clinic (Horgan, 2003).

The Na’Nizhoozhi Center developed the Hina’ ah Bits’os Society (HBS) in response to the needs of Native American clients that chronically abuse alcohol and are not responding to treatment. Harrison (2000) explained that:

The use of the word “society” better reflects our philosophy of holistic social bonding and spiritual/cultural devotion. Referred to as “relatives”, these participants move out of our normal facility and into the HBS ceremonial grounds. Sessions, some meals, and occasionally an “over-nighter” take place in the hogan, tipi, or shade arbors. (p. 1)

Kelley (2005), a representative of the HBS, said that “…it is very likely that many traditional Navajo medicine and Native American Church procedures (such as sweat lodge, ‘blessing-way,’ herb-usage, and a wide range of intense ceremonies) will produce significant and measurable psychophysiological, stress-relieving benefits” and also mentioned that “…active participation in the Native American Church is considered by both researchers and traditional therapists to be more effective than the standard 12-step treatment or medical treatment protocol” (p. 1).


Albaugh, B.J. & Anderson, P.O. (1974). Peyote in the treatment of alcoholism among American Indians. American Journal of Psychiatry131(11);1247-1250.

Blum, K., Futterman, S.L. & Pascarosa, P. (1977). Peyote, a potential ethnopharmacologic agent for alcoholism and other drug dependencies: possible biochemical rationale. Clinical Toxicology11(4);459-472.

Garrity, J.F. (2000). Jesus, peyote, and the holy people: Alcohol abuse and the ethos of power in Navajo healing. Medical Anthropology Quarterly14(4);521-542.

Grof, S. & Bennett., H.Z. (1993). The Holotropic Mind. (pp. 206). New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Halpern, J.H. (1996). The use of hallucinogens in the treatment of addiction. Addiction Research4(2);177-189. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from www.erowid.org/references/refs_view.php?A=ShowDocP…

Harrison, J. (2000). NCI-HBS: Overview of Program. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from www.wellbriety-nci.org/Publications/hbs_overview.h…

Horgan, J. (2003) Peyote on the brain. Discover. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from discovermagazine.com/2003/feb/featpeyote

Kelley, M. (2005). Critical, Active Variables in Cultural Treatment. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from www.wellbriety-nci.org/Publications/critical.htm

Mercado, L. (1997). Traditional rehabilitative therapy: A look into the positive therapeutic potential of the Native American Church peyote ceremony. Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies . 7(4). Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from www.maps.org/news-letters/v07n4/07404mer.html

Pascarosa, P., Futterman, S. & Halsweig, M. (1976). Observations of alcoholics in the peyote ritual: A pilot study. Annals New York Academy of Sciences273;518-524.

Yensen, R. & Dryer, D. (2007). Addiction, despair, and the soul: successful psychedelic psychotherapy, a case study. Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogenic Substances as Treatments . 2 ;15-28.

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