Pubdate: Mon, 19 Sep 2005
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2005 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Sylvia Moreno, The Washington Post
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


MIRANDO CITY, Texas - In the heart of Rio Grande brush country, Salvador 
Johnson works a patch of land just east of the Mexican border that is 
sacred to Native Americans.

Spade in hand, eyes scanning the earth as he pushes through the spiny 
brush, Johnson searches the ground carefully. "This is good terrain for 
peyote," he says. "There's a low hill - the rain starts on top and goes 
down to water this - and there's a lot of brown ground."

He stops, points the tip of his shovel at a 3-inch spot of green that 
barely crests the soil under a clump of blackbrush and announces: "This is 
what you look for. You look for something that is not ordinary on the 
terrain. I saw that green."

One of the last remaining "peyoteros," Johnson, 58, has been harvesting the 
small round plant in and around this tiny community for 47 years - long 
before the hallucinogenic Lophophora williamsii cactus was classified as a 
narcotic and outlawed by federal and state governments. Then as now, it is 
for use by Native Americans as the main sacrament in their religious 

Johnson is part of a nearly extinct trade of licensed peyote harvesters and 
distributors, at a time when the supply of the cactus and access to it is 
dwindling. The plant grows wild only in portions of four southern Texas 
counties and in the northern Mexico desert just across the Rio Grande.

But some Texas ranch owners have stopped leasing land to peyoteros and now 
offer their property to deer hunters or oil and gas companies for 
considerably higher profits. Others have plowed under peyote, and still 
others have never opened their land.

On the ranchland that is worked by peyoteros, conservationists are 
concerned about the overharvesting of immature plants as the Native 
American population and demand for the cactus grows.

"Will there be peyote for my children and my children's children?" asked 
Adam Nez, 35, a Navajo who had driven 26 hours with his father-in-law from 
their reservation in Page, Ariz., to stock up on peyote at Johnson's home.

That question and possible solutions to the problem - such as trying to 
legalize the importation of peyote from Mexico, and creating legal 
cultivation centers in the United States - are being studied by members of 
the Native American Church, Indian rights advocates and conservationists.

There are an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 members of the church in the 
United States. Although 90 percent of the peyote in North America grows in 
Mexico, the number of ceremonial users there - mostly Huichol Indians - is 
a small fraction of the number in the United States and Canada.

"In effect, you have a whole continent grazing on little pieces of south 
Texas," said Martin Terry, a botany professor at Sul Ross State University 
in Alpine, Texas, who specializes in the study of peyote.

The church was incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma to protect the religious 
use of peyote by indigenous Americans. Its charter was eventually expanded 
to other states, and in 1965, a federal regulation was approved to protect 
the ceremonial use of peyote by Indians. In 1978, Congress passed the 
American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

But subsequent conflicts between federal policy and state drug laws 
precipitated the passage of a federal law in 1994 to guarantee the legal 
use, possession and transportation of peyote "by an Indian for bona fide 
traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a 
traditional Indian religion."

The law extends protection against prosecution for the possession and use 
of peyote only to members of federally recognized tribes.

"Over the last 40 years, there have been lots of equal-protection defenses 
to criminal prosecution thrown up, with people saying 'my use of this 
controlled substance is religiously derived,' " said Steve Moore, a senior 
staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

Though not considered addictive, peyote is included in the Drug Enforcement 
Agency's list of Schedule I controlled substances along with heroin, 
lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana and methaqualone.

Although the DEA acknowledges the importance of the hallucinogenic cactus 
to the religious rites of Native American peyote users, the agency says the 
drug has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medicinal purpose 
in the United States.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has licensed peyote distributors 
since the mid-1970s, when the number in the state peaked at 27. It dwindled 
to four last year. State records show that only three distributors have 
harvested and sold peyote so far this year.

For the past five years, an average of almost 1.9 million peyote buttons 
have been sold annually, according to state records.
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MAP posted-by: Elizabeth Wehrman