Indigenous religious leaders oppose decriminalization of peyote

The possibility of states decriminalizing the general use of peyote raises concerns among Indigenous practitioners, who employ the cactus in traditional settings such as the Native American Church. Already, the Navajo Nation is preparing to oppose any changes to the law.

As states continue to decriminalize marijuana, Tracy Willie, director of the Navajo Azeé Bee Nahaghá healing group of Diné Nation, Inc., said there could be a domino effect if states want to decriminalize peyote, which is a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

“Right now the challenges we’re having are that there are other nationalities that have an interest because of what they see in peyote, they call it mescaline,” Willie said. “It is the primary interest.”

Mescaline is the hallucinogenic agent found in the peyote plant, and Willie and other Native American Church members across the country are concerned that with the already limited availability of peyote, once it is decriminalized it will might get even scarier for real-life mainstream use. .

“We want to preserve and protect this way of life, of worship, of belief not only for us, but for the children, our grandchildren. We’re looking at 50 years later, 100 years later,” Willie said. “Peyote, where it grows, is very limited in the state of Texas and vegetation and availability are limited.”

This week, leaders from the Native American Church of North America traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with lawmakers to discuss peyote protection. Larry Wright, Jr., executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, spoke with members of the Native American Church in North America, reassuring them that the group supports their position to protect peyote.

“On behalf of the NCAI, I want to reaffirm our support for the Native American Church in North America,” Wright said. “In 2009, the NCAI passed a resolution, and that was support for the Native American Church in North America and the ability to harvest peyote. We want to make sure we support that moving forward.

Members of the Diné Nation's Azeé Bee Nahagha met with Navajo Council delegates at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino to discuss new proposals.

Amid concerns, Navajo council weighs action

Where peyote is grown in Texas and Mexico it is in decline due to land development, ranching, agriculture, poaching, psychedelic tourism, improper harvesting and climate change , according to Azeé Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation, Inc.

Formerly known as the Native American Church of Navajoland Inc., the Azeé Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation, Inc. was established in 1966 as a non-profit organization and was incorporated in New Mexico in 1972. In 1989, the Council of the Navajo Nation granted a revocable land use permit for the group in Chinle.

Azeé Bee Nahaghá of the Diné Nation recognizes peyote as sacred among the Navajo people, saying peyote has been consumed by the Navajo people for religious, cultural and ceremonial purposes since time immemorial, according to the group.

The Navajo Nation Council is considering a measure indicating that the tribe is against the decriminalization of peyote. The legislation had passed through three other committees, with delegates from the Navajo council passing it without hesitation, but the council’s Naabikiytai committee recently tabled the legislation 45 days after the sponsor said members of the Azeé Bee Nahaghá of the Diné nation were not on the same page.

If the legislation passes, it will firmly pit the Navajo Nation against any state decriminalizing the use of peyote.

The measure would encourage all states to limit the non-criminal use of peyote for religious, ceremonial and cultural purposes only, as stipulated in the 1994 amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Congress enacted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to protect the rights of Native Americans to practice their traditional religions by ensuring access to sacred sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and freedom of worship through ceremonial and traditional rites without repercussions from the federal government.

The law, Willie said, “only identifies that peyote is to be used by federally recognized tribes. We are one of those federally recognized tribes.”

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The Journey to the Peyote Practitioner

As a traditional Navajo practitioner, George Tolth led many Native American Church meetings. He is also a veteran, former Navajo Nation police officer and former council delegate who is running for office again nearly 30 years after his last term ended. He is currently the chapter president of his community of Casamero Lake.

The journey to becoming a traditional practitioner took years, he said. When he came back from the army and became a policeman, he didn’t believe in the traditional use of peyote, and when his parents decided to organize a NAC meeting for him, he said he was restless. at the idea.

“I would say, ‘Why are you eating that stuff?'” Tolth recalled. “I do not believe it.”

Then he met his mentor, a fellow practitioner who taught him songs, prayers, and the proper way to lead NAC meetings. Tolth assisted his mentor as he conducted the ceremonies.

“I kept going to his meetings,” Tolth said. “I started to learn the content of it, the way the medicine speaks to you. How the fireplace speaks to you. I learned how he conducted his meetings and what their purpose was.

Tolth rarely uses peyote now, but that’s not because he doesn’t believe in it. His belief in this traditional medicine thrives because it helped him through difficult times. What worries him when it comes to peyote is the abuse and abuse of people, which he has seen on different occasions.

“I still believe in the Creator and peyote because without it I wouldn’t be here,” Tolth said. “It put me here, and I can’t go out and say ‘forget it’. I still use it, but the problem is I see people abusing it.

Threats to the plant in its habitat

A peyote plant can take 12 to 16 years to mature, adding to the limited availability. Thus, the unnecessary misuse of it can have a disastrous impact on its supply for NAC members.

Azeé Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation thinks that if peyote is decriminalised, it could be over-harvested, putting the plant at risk. It would also significantly affect the religious, ceremonial and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, including the Navajo Nation, where many people have a sincere religious belief and a strong connection to the use of peyote for ceremonial purposes and cultural.

The Cactus Conservation Institute is a nonprofit organization that studies ways to preserve and protect the wild habitat of endangered cacti, including peyote, in the deserts of the southern United States and northern Mexico. .

In a 2021 study, the institute concluded that up to 261 greenhouses would be needed to meet the demand for peyote for use by the more than 500,000 Native American church members in the United States.

“One or two, or even 10, greenhouses are clearly insufficient to meet current or future needs,” the CCI report states. “The longer the delay before cultivation begins on a significant scale, the greater the risk that wild extinctions will continue to spread (with possible wild extinction).”

To create a cultivation program for a slow-growing perennial with projections of annual harvests in the future, an equal number of plants should be planted each year until the operation can become sustainable on a harvest basis. rotary, indicates the report.

For peyote, this cycle can be 12 to 16 years, or more if the location is less favourable. Peyote can be grown faster by light feeding and heavy watering, or by grafting, but it would not be suitable for use as a medicine unless enough extra time is spent under more natural growing conditions. Without this delay, the mescaline content will be low, the report explains.

Due to the possibility that peyote will be extinct in less than 50 years, the group Decriminalize Nature believes that decriminalizing peyote will be the plant’s saving grace. The group recommends several policies that should change:

  • Cultivation of peyote by members of federally recognized tribes and Native American churches should be immediately decriminalized and removed from federal oversight and regulations, allowing tribes and churches to choose this means of reducing demand on limited natural habitats. .
  • Decriminalize peyote for personal cultivation by non-Indigenous people to reduce the demand for cacti extracted from Indigenous sources and habitats for the peyote trade.
  • Peyote in its natural habitat should only be available to indigenous communities and poaching should continue to be penalised.

But some members of Azeé Bee Nahaghá of the Diné Nation say decriminalizing peyote will negatively affect the plant and have serious consequences for their religious practice.

“I was brought up with the peyote ceremony, which to my family is a very sacred religion and participation in this form of medicine is also sacred to us native people and is used in a very strict and sacred way,” said said NAC member Earl Morris. Jr.

“Decriminalizing peyote use would lead to unintended consequences that would destroy our way of life,” Morris said. mass production and attempts to market this Blessed Sacrament.”

Arlyssa Becenti covers Native Affairs for the Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to

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