Semi-legal drugs : peyote Source: The Economist
Date: 03 April 1999

A Field Full Of Buttons

PEYOTE: the divine cactus

MIRANDO CITY, TEXAS - Webb, Zapata, Jim Hogg and Starr Counties, all in Texas, look much like the rest of the American south-west--lots of parched rangeland, dotted with mesquite, cacti and the occasional ranch. In this desolate region, people are far outnumbered by "buttons" of America's most unusual crop: peyote, a small, mind-altering cactus used for 10,000 years as an Indian religious sacrament.

Peyote--officially known to botanists as Lophophora williamsii--grows naturally only in these four counties, and it cannot be successfully cultivated anywhere. For non-Indians, possession is illegal and punishable by stiff narcotics laws. But the religious use of peyote is allowed for members of the Native American Church, a pan-tribal religion derived from the practices of native peoples who inhabited what is now southern Texas and northern Mexico.

The peyote church, as it is sometimes called, began to spread through Indian country in the late 1870s. Adherents eat peyote in a powdery form or drink it in tea during communal sessions that last from evening until dawn. Members of the 400,000-member church do not report feeling a high--pharmacologists say actual hallucinations are uncommon--but rather a period of intense inward reflection. "To me it's a medicine," says Earl Arkinson, the church president, a Chippewa-Cree Indian from Montana who is a police chief in his other life. "It's a spiritual feeling."

Until recently, the legal status of peyote was a headache for church members. Congregants who wished to avoid being stopped for possession of peyote were obliged to drive through a loose patchwork of states in which church-sanctioned uses of peyote were legal. Then, in 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect the religious use of peyote by the Native American Church.

Four years later, Congress--backed by the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal law-enforcement officials--rebuked the high court by reaffirming the right to use peyote in religious ways, and by preventing states from cracking down on the transport of peyote. Indirectly, that legislation also ensured that the small band of predominantly Latino peyote harvesters, or peyoteros, in south Texas would be able to continue their trade.

The peyoteros' techniques are learned from family members or neighbours. Since the plant lies close to the ground, harvesting--slicing the drug-containing "buttons" from the roots--is backbreaking work. Experienced harvesters, however, can pick 1,000 buttons in an hour. Once collected, the buttons are either used immediately or dried naturally on long, slanted tables, a process that can take as long as a month or as little as a week in the searing summer temperatures of south Texas.

The Texas Department of Public Safety licenses seven peyoteros and monitors them on a quarterly basis. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency keeps an eye on things too, and reports very little abuse of the drug by non-Indians. Advocates of peyote say it actually reduces alcoholism among Indians, a serious health problem in most tribes.

Salvador Johnson, of tiny Mirando City, is one of the youngest peyoteros; he is 52. He employs up to a dozen labourers, most of them relatives, to pick peyote buttons all year round on about 30,000 acres. His business is booming. "You can have 100 church members come down in a weekend," he says, "and the least that each of them will take is probably a couple of thousand buttons." Mr Johnson himself may not supply all those customers, but at $150 for 1,000 fresh buttons--or $170 for 1,000 dried buttons--the maths works out well enough. "By June, I take a break because I'm exhausted," he says.

In addition to affording the harvesters a living, the peyote business helps funnel the dollars of Indian peyote-seekers to restaurants and hotels in large cities like Laredo as well as small towns like Rio Grande City, which is home to five of the seven licensed harvesters. But trouble lurks. Although some of the ranchers whom Mr Johnson and his fellow-peyoteros work with have been leasing them peyote-rich land for decades, others are increasingly unwilling to do so. They can make much more money from renting their lands to big-game hunters than to peyote harvesters.

With fewer lands available to harvest, the supply of peyote is shrinking even as church demand increases. There is an easy solution: using peyote stocks that stretch 300 miles or more into Mexico, a reserve that might produce twice the output of the United States. Yet, ironically for a government that has often run into trouble with American officials for enforcing drug laws too weakly, Mexico continues to stand firm on peyote, preventing any harvesting or possession of the cactus on its side of the border.

If Mexico were to liberalise its peyote laws, or if the Native American Church were to buy land and harvest its own peyote, America's seven licensed peyoteros could suffer from falling prices. But Mr Johnson says he would be willing to put up with that if it meant an increased supply of peyote for congregants who need it. "We will never have enough to meet the demand," he says. "There's no way in the world we can meet it. It's sad, because this is something these people use for their church. And without peyote, there is no church."


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