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Unveiling mescaline’s history: A conversation with Mike Jay

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OCTOBER 18, 2019

When people hear “psychedelic,” they might think of raves, trips, hallucinations, electronic dance parties or the 1960s. The uses Western culture has for these substances are more popularly thought of in a recreational sense rather than a scientific or historical one. But many forget that these psychedelic substances have a history and a narrative that has informed human culture for decades before their modern usage. 

On Oct. 4, Mike Jay, author of “Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic,” spoke at Moe’s Books about his book, his involvement with this field of study and the broader implications of his work. This book investigates how Native Americans, colonizers, scientists, artists and others’ relationships with the San Pedro cactus and peyote have evolved over time. Rather than investigating the modern recreational use of mescaline, Jay is interested in where this psychedelic substance originated from; how it was used as a weapon of spiritual and identity oppression; how it benefited psychology and cognitive science; and how it led to the invention of many other popular psychedelic drugs, such as ecstasy and LSD. 

To uncover the details of this story a bit more, I spoke with Jay to understand this multiculturalist history of mescaline.

The Daily Californian: So just a little bit about your own history, I was wondering if we could talk about how you became interested in this topic. What’s your background with mescaline, and why is this particularly your substance of interest?

Mike Jay: Sure, well, I’ve written a lot about the history of medicine and drugs, and there’s actually some episodes in the history of mescaline that I’ve written about before. I find it a fascinating topic; we normally think of the psychedelic era as the 1960s with Aldous Huxley and when he wrote “(The) Doors of Perception” about his first mescaline trip. 

Mescaline was first synthesized about a hundred years ago in 1919, and before that it was isolated in the peyote cactus in the 1890s, so there is an enormous prehistory of mescaline. Much of which has never been explored or looked at, and it’s fantastically various — there were all kinds of people using mescaline through the 20th century and at the time. And you have scientists and people of all different capacities: artists, writers, philosophers, anthropologists, youths and people without the framework of reference that we now have about psychedelics. People originally having to think about the experience that it produced and all the experiments and creative work that was done with it. And it’s all never been pulled into a history before. 

DC: Yes, it’s all very fascinating. One thing that really struck me from your talk was how you talked about how the native cultures tended to use mescaline in a more community-oriented setting, whereas Western cultures tend to seek an individual experience. And I was wondering if you have any additional commentary on how that might impact those different cultures’ relationship with that substance.

MJ: I think that’s another reason why I was rather interested in the history of mescaline, because it splits pretty equally — at least as I conceive of it — as a history of its modern use in Western culture and its indigenous use. And so, I think it shows us that psychedelic use is not the only way to conceive it. And you see all these different histories together from the source material.

The Western history is more about the “trip-report,” the first-person experience. From the very beginning, the scientists and the writers and the artists (were) talking about their own experience and talking about the visions that they see, and that’s our discourse. And if you look back into the hundreds, if not thousands, of years of traditional use, you don’t really find that; you don’t see people reporting, “I took peyote, and this is what happened to me, and this is how I felt.” Because from that perspective, it seems rather crude and reductive to say, “Oh, this is all about the drug,” because not only does the cactus have its own personality, which is much more than that, but also the cactus is part of a ritual and collective experience. 

So that personal experience and description about your “visions” is not as present in indigenous cultures. People don’t really talk about the visionary aspects of it. The first thing we think of when we hear “psychedelic” is crazy visuals, even though we know there’s a lot more to the experience than that. For indigenous cultures, it’s a different kind of story; it’s a story of the people and the story of a wider culture that you can’t sort of lift the drug out of so cleanly. 

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DC: Right, in the talk, I also remember you emphasizing the creation of the Native American Church and how that is a remnant of their relationship with mescaline. I’m interested in honing in on the Native American people and (how) the cultural significance of mescaline has really changed throughout history — and also how the early documentation of its use was conducted. I know you said that people starting using this around 4000 B.C.E., and I was wondering how this early use was documented. Was it by other people looking into that culture or the population itself? 

MJ: There are archaeological traces of that thousands of years ago: dried peyotes found in caves in Texas and so on. And with the other mescaline-containing cactus, San Pedro, there’s really striking art: 3,000-year-old carvings of the San Pedro in temple sites high up in the Andes in Peru. So the art and architecture gives us a very long backstory into this, but in terms of the descriptions of the experiences, this didn’t really start until the European encounter with (mescaline), such as the Spanish conquest with Mexico.

So at that point you have the early Spanish chronicles writing of this cactus and peyote that the local people, Aztecs as they called them, take and have visions. And the Jesuits who were coming at that time from Europe at the height of the witch craze, of course they imagined these visions being produced by the Devil and the people who were using them. So Peyote became the first drug to be prohibited by Europeans. In the 1620s, the Mexican Inquisition banned it, and I think from that point on, it becomes a kind of marker of Indian (Native American) identity. A white European population saying that peyote is associated with savagery and that it must be banned and abandoned before people can become civilized Christians — then it also becomes, at the same time, a badge of Indian (Native American) identity, and I think the same thing happens during the claiming of the Plains tribes and the enforcement of their captivity in reservations in the 1890s. 

Particularly after the Ghost Dance there (was) traditional singing and dancing that was all prohibited on the reservations, and that’s where the Plains (tribes’) peyote ceremony comes together. So it happens around the teepee at night because it had to be sort of clandestine to keep out of sight of the authorities. But then it also becomes the real focus to the old ways that the culture’s being lost, and it developed in such a way that tried to keep that fire burning despite the white majority cultures being around. And also the San Pedro in Peru and some places became very central and important to preserving and shaping visions of indigenous identity when it comes from the threat of the white majority culture banning and prohibiting it. 

DC: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense with the colonization of that history and how it was criminalized at an early development of it. In your talk, you also mentioned how LSD became more of the modern rival of mescaline and its usage and how mescaline became less popular because of LSD’s potency. I was wondering if you think that the history of mescaline might have any kind of indication on what our future substances and drugs might look like? 

MJ: LSD is synthesized in the early ‘50s, and when LSD appears, people said, “Oh this is kind of like mescaline.” There are these two drugs that are very similar in experience, but their difference in dosage is enormous. A gram of mescaline is three doses, and a gram of LSD is thousands of doses.

LSD is also more interesting to scientists, because a drug that is active at such a tiny dosage must be doing something very specific and triggering some particular part of the brain. LSD takes over in scientific research for that reason. And when you get a counterculture of LSD going then underground chemists synthesize LSD over mescaline. 

But I think that in modern psychedelic culture, mescaline has become a sort of legendary substance, because in “(The) Doors of Perception” everyone has heard of mescaline, but not so many people have taken it. The significant figure of that time, Alexander Shulgin, (first) took mescaline in (the late 1950s) and, in his research, created various analogues and synthetic variants of it. In the course of which he most famously produced MDMA, ecstasy. 

I think that’s why mescaline has disappeared. Instead of this long, 12-hour, grueling experience, the molecules have been tweaked in a way that suits youth and dance culture much better. And since then, we see more of natural psychoactive substances in plants being synthesized and tweaked. I think that story has really showed us where drug culture has gone and where it’s going to be carried on into the future. 

DC: Interesting, I definitely see that as well. While you are touring this book, is there a narrative within the narrative that you are telling, as you are revisiting and emphasizing certain passages of your book? Is there any message or moral that the history of mescaline has to teach us? 

MJ: Definitely, I think that we’ve got this psychedelic revival going, and we’ve got this psychedelic therapy and things that are always happening with psilocybin and LSD and MDMA. What I found interesting about mescaline is that it is a story that you can tell on its own terms because it’s not directly informing the culture now. But some of the takeaways for me are that the ways that we conceive psychedelics in our modern Western culture (are) not the only way — let’s look at the ways other cultures around the world and throughout history interact with these substances. 

What we now call psychedelic is like a cultural pigeonhole. But when we look at the broader range of ways that mescaline was used and explored by scientists and artists and philosophers like Walter Benjamin, these substances have a huge range of potential uses. I hope that this gives us pause on how we choose to use them. … They’re hard to put into one pigeonhole or discipline, so I think that their story is going to keep on evolving in our culture. 

DC: Yeah, I think it’s great to be retracing this history and nuancing our understanding of this substance and not explicitly placing mescaline into one category or another, because I think this can often lead to more complicated thought that excludes people from using mescaline or criminalizes it in a way that makes the substance seem like something that it’s not. 

MJ: Yes, that’s exactly it. I’m trying to raise people’s attention from where we are in the present moment and look at the broader range of possibility.

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected].

OCTOBER 18, 2019