The misbegotten reputation of peyote affects its availability, Native American Church proponents said.
CADDO NATION, Okla. – Peyote’s tale has long roots. It is an intricate story of reverence, piety and later; illegality. Today, the gray-green cactus is experiencing revived religious interest but lowered production-a duality that has some officials questioning its reputation as an outlaw.
Intrigue has always surrounded the plant. Peyote has been used by medicine men in the Southwest for more than 5,000 years as a spiritual barometer through its hallucinogenic effects. Alarm among non-Native groups soon followed. Dan Swan, associate curator at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), said peyote is experiencing a growth spurt in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. Swan, who has spent more than 20 years studying peyote and the Native American Church (NAC), said peyote holds firm sway.
“It’s so complicated,” Swan said in a telephone interview. “It’s difficult to know what’s up with the availability of peyote. I been down there (south Texas) and that’s undeniable there’s not as much as there used to be.”
The Sooner state remains the “cradle of peyotism.” Visiting Lipan Apaches intermarried with Plains tribes and the ground work was laid for the present-day Native American Church, Swan said.
The curator cites growth for peyote (as a religion) in the 1860s around south Texas and northern Mexico circa the 1930s. Among the Native communities, peyote’s place was low-key but essential. It was not until the 1960s that peyote drew a bad reputation when counter-culturists began to tout mescaline (active peyote hallucinogen) for its mystical and mythical qualities.
“It never caught on,” Swan said of non-Native users. Instead, it became known as a “danger to society,” during Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1970 when drug schedules were created to rank drugs based on various criteria. Peyote was placed on the list of most dangerous drugs and remained there.
The misbegotten reputation of peyote affects its availability, NAC proponents said. Since the plant grows almost exclusively in southern Texas, that state’s laws govern and monitor its commerce (which has steadily dropped since 2006). To date, official growers or peyoteros are licensed by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) while NAC church branches are also registered with the state of Texas.
Peyote’s dropping numbers are prompting one Indian tribe in Oklahoma to ask for broadened access through the federal level. The Caddo Nation in Binger, Oklahoma, hopes United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tribal liaison, Janie Hipp (Chickasaw), will carry forth their petition to ease access to the cactus for tribes. Milton Sovo, Caddo Nation vice-chairman, said the tribe sat down with Hipp in a consultation at a federal workshop touted for building bridges between tribes and federal agencies.
Leaders of the 5,500-member tribe said they wanted to reach USDA secretary, Tom Vilsack, with suggestions on peyote accessibility. Meanwhile, USDA officials allow that the tribal liaison favors protecting natural environments for plants that Indians use for medicinal purposes, but peyote is not specifically named. Hipp released a departmental statement that both addressed and skirted the issue.
“Through their actions, Native Americans have provided the world’s farmers with fiber and seeds that literally clothe and feed the planet. It is important that these original strains be preserved as a resource not only for Native American farmers and ranchers, but for those who will benefit from them in the future.”
Criss-crossing federal agencies are also a part of the Caddos’ obstacles. U.S. Department of Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials said while peyote sits on the Schedule 1 drug list, changes remain unlikely. Federal statutes cite its potential for abuse or harm when using and because it has no medically sanctioned use (schedules are ranked numerically with the most dangerous drugs listed with lowest number). Currently, peyote is listed alongside drugs like Ecstasy (MDMA), Psilocybin mushrooms and LSD. Meanwhile, the Schedule 2 list has cocaine and opium which have medical applications.
Special agent Keith Brown of the DEA’s New Mexico regional office said of 16 years in the region, he has not encountered trafficking or prosecution involving peyote.
“It’s illegal, but when you look at other drug problems facing America or Native America, it’s not peyote that’s the problem,” Brown said.
Drugs that are problems on reservations or amongst Indians are methamphetamine, prescription drugs or marijuana, he said.
In Texas (the Caddo Nation’s aboriginal territory), state officials monitor the sales volume by its three legal vendors and put the figure at just under roughly $480,000 annually. This amount limits a market that drug runners are interested in, the DEA special agent adds.
Federal law, 42 USC 1996a, outlines genuine religious peyote use by only those who are Native American. It is illegal for anyone with less than one quarter Indian blood to possess cactus buttons. And only card-carrying members of the NAC can purchase the buttons used to ingest during religious services.
But the Caddo Nation members said they aren’t interested in bending DEA laws on legality - only in increasing how much peyote they can purchase and how easily they can get to it, Sovo said.
“She (Hipp) promised to take it back to the USDA secretary,” Sovo said. “It took us 10 years to get someone in Washington (D.C.) to sit down and listen to us.”
Caddo Nation officials said peyote is used as a traditional Indian sacrament in their religion and is covered by the U.S. Constitution. If there’s a shortage of access, they said, the feds should step up assistance to Indian peyote practitioners.
Ironically, looking for the cactus is not that difficult online. Plugging the word “peyote,” into a search engine pulled up 3 million results. Outside of the United States (excluding France and Russia) laws are more lenient about buying and possessing the Lophophora williamsii, or peyote buttons. In those countries, its legality hinges on it being a botanical specimen growth, Swan said.
Peyote’s restricted and illegal status is illogical, tribal officials maintain.
“Common sense is not so common it seems,” Sovo said.
A lot is at stake here, Caddo chairman, Brenda Edwards, said. The Caddos will keep trying.
“Not just for us but for all tribes,” Edwards said. “The soil is changing and many of the plants are not as plentiful as they once were. We’d like access to labs and answers on our soil questions as well as plants’ availability back.”