The Washington Post

The Washington Post
November 7, 2005 Monday
Final Edition
SECTION: A Section; A08

by Shankar Vedantam

Repeated use of the hallucinogenic drug peyote produces no psychological problems or adverse effects among Navajos who use it in religious rituals, according to an unusual study partly funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Those who ingested the peyote cactus in fact had better moods and a greater sense of psychological well-being than nonusers, although those benefits probably were the result of being part of a close-knit religious community rather than a result of the hallucinogen, researchers who conducted the study found.

The scientists cautioned that it is unclear whether people who use hallucinogens illegally would show similar benefits. Navajo users are allowed to ingest the drug as part of a religious ceremony, and its use is carefully circumscribed and guided. The active ingredient in peyote is the drug mescaline.

“Something being used responsibly in a religious setting in a ceremony that is more than a century old is different than an illicit user taking something on the street,” said Harrison Pope, one of the study’s authors. “We cannot generalize from these findings.”

Previous studies had suggested that hallucinogens caused lasting psychological problems, but Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said the new study is the first to study users who were not simultaneously abusing other drugs. The Navajo peyote users are forbidden from using drugs outside the religious ceremonies.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, there was negative commentary about hallucinogens, with statements saying these were toxic drugs that could cause people to become insane,” said Pope, whose paper was published last week in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“The Navajos had told us they had not noticed any problems,” he added. “They had seen numerous members of the church [use peyote and] it was not something anyone had observed to be a problem.”

The researchers compared Navajos who had ingested peyote at least once a month over a long period with Navajos who were not taking any drugs. A series of tests involving spatial skills and strategic reasoning showed no difference between the groups.

The Washington Post publishes an article covering John Halpern’s peyote study.