Court: No Peyote For 4-Year-Old

PEYOTE: the divine cactus
WHITE CLOUD, Michigan, April 22, 2003

(AP) A family court judge ruled Tuesday that a 4-year-old boy cannot take peyote at American Indian spiritual ceremonies.

In his decision, Judge Graydon W. Dimkoff wrote that "peyote is dangerous, and in general should be avoided." He went on to state, however, that the boy could ingest peyote when he is fully aware of the implications, is physically and emotionally ready, and has the permission of both parents.

The boy's father, Jonathan Fowler, 36, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, had asked Dimkoff to reverse an earlier decision and allow his son to ingest sacramental peyote with him at the Native American Church of the Morning Star.

Kristin Hanslovsky, Fowler's ex-wife, had fought the request, saying she did not want to violate anyone's religious freedom, but giving the boy peyote could cause long-term neurological defects.

Fowler's attorney, Thomas Myers, of Michigan Indian Legal Services, has said the case was about ensuring that "rights guaranteed to Native Americans by treaty or statute are secured, and I think that would include constitutional rights."

Peyote, a bitter-tasting cactus that grows in southern Texas and northern Mexico, has been a part of Indian culture for thousands of years. Those who ingest the plant - usually drunk as a tea or eaten as a greenish paste - believe it provides enlightenment and other spiritual and physical benefits.

The plant's active chemical ingredient is mescaline, a hallucinogen. The U.S. criminal code classifies peyote as a controlled substance, and in most instances a person caught with more than 4 ounces (113.4 grams) faces the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence.

But during the last century, peyote's use in religious rites spread among American Indians throughout the United States, including the upper Midwest. Congress recognized this sacramental use of peyote eight years ago by amending the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to protect the practice in all 50 states.

Testifying on Fowler's behalf at a court hearing last year, John H. Halpern, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, said he has found no evidence of a child or adult being harmed by the use of peyote in Indian religious services.

"This is a sacred ceremony," said Halpern, who has conducted an extensive study of peyote use among Indians. "It's not something to entertain people."

About 300,000 Indians who belong to the Native American Church of North America, the nation's largest church for indigenous peoples, ingest some form of the cactus, Halpern said.

Some of the churches do not let young children ingest peyote, however. At the Peyote Way Church of God in Klondike, Arizona, a person must be at least 18 - or 14, with parental permission - to take the substance.

"Peyote is an introspective experience," said church co-director Anne Zapf. "It's a God experience and generally you have to have a few sins under your belt."


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