Native American and preservationist advocates are sounding the alarm about an imminent “peyote crisis.” The crisis started decades ago, but recently has been amplified by pharmaceutical interests in mescaline, the psychoactive compound the cactus is known for.
The mescaline-rich spineless cactus, Lophophora williamsii, has been used in sacred rituals for over 5,000 years by American indigenous cultures, but through careless harvesting by recreational users, or worse, mass produced pharmaceutical companies, all of that could soon be lost. In the U.S. the cactus only grows wild in Texas—where it’s been declared an endangered species—as well as Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas in northern Mexico.
The cactus is currently being monetized for either pharmaceutical or recreational use, and indigenous groups like the Native American Church (NAC) are concerned that the sacred plant is being exploited. In the December 1977 issue of High Times, journalist J. F. Burke wrote about his journey with peyote that started in 1957, one of the first in-depth articles about the plant, just as the federal government was making exemptions for a short list of Native Americans. Since then, a lot of hippies, psychonauts, and wannabe shamans have scoured the earth looking for ways to find it.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C. § 1996.) protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions–including psychedelic sacraments. On Dec. 22, 1981, the Department of Justice reiterated the DEA’s peyote exemption for the NAC, but only bona fide members of the church are included. Only allowing that single church was challenged in 1994 under Peyote Way Church of God, Inc. v. Thornburgh and Congress amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to legalize peyote use by all members of Native American tribes.
Vice reported last September Canada-based Lophos Pharma, a publicly-traded company, started to produce the psychoactive cactus for pharmaceutical, not spiritual purposes. Lophos runs a 10,000-square foot facility in Napanee, Ontario. Mescaline itself is illegal under Schedule III of the Canadian drug act, peyote is permitted, so long as the mescaline isn’t extracted from it. But some say even medical purposes are not the way the cactus should be consumed, as it’s considered sacred.
Peyote Advocates Push Back
Colorado-based journalist Annette McGivney has recently been advocating for the preservation of peyote and the sacred ceremonies that surround it.
McGivney told KJZZ that she visited with the two camps of people: “One is, you know, the plant medicine activists and then the pharmaceutical entrepreneurs, so the plant medicine activists had two different responses,” she said. “One was they were totally oblivious to the Native American worldview and why it would not be OK with them for someone to just grow a peyote cactus in their home greenhouse. They had no idea or they were coming up with their own justification saying, ‘Well, it’s not interfering with Native American spirituality because we’re growing the cactus ourselves. So we’re not taking it away from its natural habitat.’ And they kind of come up with their own justification, ignoring what Native Americans were actually saying, that that was a problem.”
Companies like Lophos Pharma, which is growing peyote legally in Canada, as well as researchers in the U.S. are also a threat to the sanctity Native American religious ceremonies.
“And then the pharmaceutical industry has their own justifications about why they’re not infringing on Native American spirituality, which is they’re using synthetic mescaline. So they’re creating chemical compounds in a lab that clone the cactus, the psychoactive substance. So they’re saying that’s OK because we’re not actually using the cactus, but for Native Americans and their worldview around interconnectedness and respecting the sovereignty of plants as well as humans. They say it’s not OK to clone our sacred cactus.”
Last month McGivney also wrote for The Guardian about the same issue. In Window Rock, Arizona, members of the Navajo Nation, called the Diné partake of azeé (peyote). “How would Christians feel if Jesus Christ was cloned?” Justin Jones, a Diné peyote practitioner and legal counsel for the NAC asked The Guardian. “And while the real Jesus is protected, people could do whatever they wanted to the clone.”
The NAC is the same church Burke explored in the 1950’s. Other Native American healers and shamans echoed the same response, saying that cloning or mass-producing peyote is fundamentally wrong from their context.
“I’m all for healing,” said Cora Maxx-Phillips, a social worker, member of the Navajo Nation human rights commission and board member of the Council of Peyote Way of Life Coalition, a Navajo Nation grassroots group. “But don’t do it at the expense of our people, who are trying to survive the multigenerational trauma inflicted upon us. Please, leave us alone.”