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The dark side of decriminalizing peyote: The tiny cactus at the center of a fight between some Native Americans and psychedelic drug advocates

Pressures on the plant, which grows slowly and in a small area, are mounting.

Dawn Davis doesn’t remember the first time she tried peyote; she was in her mother’s womb. A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho, Davis grew up using peyote, a cactus rich in the hallucinogen mescaline, as part of her family’s religious practice. Later, as a scientist, she began studying the plant — and is now trying to protect the cactus, and Native communities’ access to it, from harms caused by the burgeoning decriminalization movement.

It’s a race against time. The peyote cactus takes eight to 12 years to regrow after harvest and decades to mature. Only members of the Native American Church (NAC) can legally harvest and consume peyote, which the federal government classifies as a Schedule I controlled substance. A spike in church membership alongside illegal purchases by curious outsiders has already outstripped what licensed harvesters can provide. Poaching, poor harvest practices, land privatization, agriculture, and oil and gas development are further fueling the decline. Indigenous leaders and researchers worry that decriminalization efforts will accelerate this decline by driving interest and demand for the plant outside the NAC and intensifying poaching.

Colorado “de-felonized” Schedule I and II substances in 2019, downgrading their possession to a misdemeanor, while Oregon decriminalized Schedule I drugs in late 2020. Municipalities like Santa Cruz, California, and Denver have selectively decriminalized, too. And while a push to put decriminalization on the ballot in Washington state this fall recently fizzled, decriminalization bills are moving through legislative pipelines in California, New York and Virginia.

Davis, a rare Indigenous voice on a subject that is sacred and sensitive among tribal communities, finds these efforts disturbing. “There’s this need for Indigenous extraction, capitalism and consumerism,” she said. “An ‘all of nature should be free’ attitude.”

Although Native American groups in the region where peyote grows have used the cactus in religious ceremonies for thousands of years, it was not until 1994 that the U.S. government amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to allow members of the Native American Church to cultivate, harvest and consume peyote for religious purposes. The church, whose practices meld Native American traditions and sometimes Christian traditions, represents members from different tribes, many with their own unique practices.

Peyote in peril

Non-Indigenous people “make it sound like peyote is everywhere in Texas,” but it’s increasingly scarce, said Mary Weahkee, an archaeologist and anthropologist in New Mexico who is a Comanche tribal member also affiliated with the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe and is an adviser to the nonprofit Cactus Conservation Institute (CCI).

Peyote grows only in one small region that bridges southwestern Texas and a small sliver of Mexico, but the plant faces threats from every direction. While the plant is subject to special protection in Mexico, a thriving peyote tourism industry is driving demand for illegal sales. The U.S. has no special protections for peyote and does not consider it endangered.

Traditional harvest practices include traveling in small groups and carrying a palm-sized cedar bow and arrow while “hunting” peyote, Weahkee said. If the arrow pierces the cactus, they harvest it. If not, they move on. They also avoid harvesting while the cactus flowers, ensuring seed for future generations, and can identify male versus female peyote, as well as the various types of cactuses that can be used ceremonially. They never use steel, like a knife, on the plant itself, only spatula-like sticks, leaving roots in place to produce another cactus.

Texas licenses Indigenous peyote distributors; there are currently four. The “buttons” they harvest each year from the crown of the cactus are getting smaller and smaller as demand outgrows supply. Harvest techniques that extract the roots help keep peyote buttons fresh but also mean the plant can’t regrow. Not to mention that Texas developers rarely note the presence of peyote before bulldozing landscapes to make way for cattle, new homes, or oil and gas development.

Miriam Volat, executive director of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI), said peyote conservation must focus on Indigenous sovereignty. “To take a completely academic, mathematic role view of conservation is very limited,” said Volat, who is also co-director of the RiverStyx Foundation, which provides financial support to IPCI. “There’s the plant, but there’s also the culture. There’s the territory. There’s all these layers that actually are part of conservation.”

It is these layers that the group hopes to preserve alongside the actual plant.

“The old way of gathering Peyote, including making pilgrimage to the Peyote gardens and praying through the entire process of gathering one’s own Peyote, has effectively been lost,” leaders of the group wrote last year on its website.

“The reality is, you can’t just go down to south Texas, jump a fence and find peyote. That’s just not even a realistic thought,” Trout said. So-called poachers, he said, are likely to be local gatherers who are better termed “fence jumpers.” If caught, Trout said, they’re typically only cited if they damage landowners’ fences.

“They know which properties have peyote,” he added. “They know where it’s located, and if they’re old enough, they also remember a time when there were no fences, there were no restrictions. So it’s a complex dynamic.”

The result is that it’s not clear how much peyote is harvested each year, even legally.

Decriminalization spreads

Peyote is often included in efforts to decriminalize Schedule I drugs through its hallucinogenic ingredient, mescaline. Although the government defines Schedule I substances as those with a high potential for abuse, recent research has revealed some hallucinogens, like LSD and peyote, are not physically addictive, helping to drive the decriminalization push nationwide.

And decriminalization doesn’t just expand access to harvested cactuses. It also opens to the door to peyote-derived psychedelic drugs. These could eventually include synthetic versions of mescaline and other hallucinogens that would further strip use of their active ingredients from sacred practices of communing with peyote during harvest or engaging in long-standing spiritual traditions.

The psychedelic community “is a space that’s supposed to be of the mind, but it’s mindless about the issues when it comes to Native American history, spiritual practice, and even Indigenous practices and ways of knowing,” Davis said.

Yet synthetics are popular among startups racing toward the first Food and Drug Administration approval for psychedelics. An FDA-approved drug will likely be the first legal access point to psychedelics for most non-Indigenous people in the U.S. And with several Phase III clinical trials — late-stage studies in people that compare a new medication to existing therapies — underway, those approvals for MDMA (an ingredient in ecstasy) and psilocybin could be here as soon as 16 to 24 months, according to psychedelic researcher Rakesh Jain of Texas Tech University.

Studies showing most psychedelics are safer than alcohol, the progress of clinical trials and the publicity of decriminalization efforts have fueled efforts from startups, psychiatrists and laypeople to suss out how best to use these substances.

To some Indigenous people, the same interests behind decriminalization also threaten to erase religious practices around peyote, by making it available without the passed-down wisdom of an older generation of users.

But Weahkee is less concerned with specific regulations than the tricky balance between the science of peyote conservation and the metaphysics of a cactus that, Native American Church members posit, can advocate for itself, if only its users will listen. While Weahkee said she’s not against non-Indigenous peyote use, “there are people who don’t understand the religion,” she said, citing “the abuse of outsiders trying to do something that they don’t understand” fueling culturally insensitive decriminalization efforts.

“I had a grandfather and a father and grandmas who were all practitioners, so I learned a lot from them [about] how to conduct myself” around peyote, she said. And it’s this kind of mentorship, passing down practices that keep peyote users safe — and often promote conservation — that she fears could be lost without proper respect for peyote, decriminalized or not. In her case, respectful practice has meant not using peyote just yet.

The Native American pushback against decriminalization is all the more notable because it comes despite long-standing reticence to discuss peyote and its significance with people outside these Indigenous cultures.

“A lot of Native American people feel that peyote is one of those topics that should not be talked about among non-Indigenous peoples,” Davis said. “And I agree,” she added, specifically referencing ceremonial use.

Native American Church members balance on a tightrope of maintaining secrecy around sacred practices and advocating for the right to practice their religion and protect peyote. Davis sought permission from her grandparents before even researching peyote.

Yet she feels strongly that discussions about policies related to peyote must include tribal leaders, members of the Native American Church and subject-matter experts from Native or Indigenous communities. Legislation drafted without Native American consultation and consent could threaten access to peyote harvests that are already on the decline, Davis said.

Trout said the CCI supports NAC’s access to peyote without prescriptive measures, though he and co-researcher Martin Terry make their research findings easily available. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that draws reproach from NAC members skeptical of outside regulation.

The conservation methods he’s helped share, Trout said, must also maintain ongoing Indigenous access. “If people want to protect wild populations, that has to be one of the factors involved in anything they do,” he said.

Davis put it simply: “We need to have our space. This is our spirituality. This is our practice.” And part of that practice, she said, is using peyote that grows freely in its natural habitat. “I don’t want to be told synthetic mescaline is better for me than wild mescaline. I know that’s not true. I’m not really interested in the clinical trials that are happening. That’s taking the spirituality out of these plant medicines.”

Weahkee also worries about losing that spirituality, although she is less concerned about greenhouse-grown peyote. She said the greater challenge is developing a new generation of respectful peyote users who are steeped in traditional practices.

“In the religion, if you really believe in it, the plant will take you out. It will bring you in, but at some point, you will get a nice little message that says, ‘You need to stop.’ I’ve heard it over and over again from different non-Native Americans,” Weahkee said.

“When you keep something away in the secret garden,” she said, “people are always going to want to be in it, no matter what you do or how high the hedge is.”

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