NEAR ROMA — San Juanita Garcia pushed back her long brown hair under a wide-brimmed hat as she pulled on tall leather pink cowgirl boots before heading out in the Starr County brush. The 51-year-old gardener was on the prowl for fresh cacti in the hot sun.
“If you see a rattle snake, stand very still — then run away,” Garcia cautioned. “It’s mating season for snakes; be very careful.”
As she the poked around a prickly pear cactus, rattlesnake skin lay on the ground nearby as she scooped out barrel cactus, “lady-finger” cactus, and even tried to uproot a full-grown yucca. Garcia runs a cactus and petrified wood garden business and often visits her hometown to collect raw materials, but there’s one cactus she can’t touch right now — peyote.
“On a semi hill on the bottom, under prickly pear — that’s where you’ll find it,” she said about where the small button-like cactus tends to grow deep in the spiny thickets.
Difficult access to the potential cash-crop can be a problem when you’ve got about $30,000 in property taxes due, she said.
“I’m willing to sell it for $15 or less. I want to help them and I want to help myself,” Garcia said. Direct sales to the Native American Church are one of a few options for ranch owners in the U.S., but it’s a heavily regulated process.
As a young girl Garcia said she remembers watching Native Americans from the Navajo tribe visit her ranch and pluck peyote cactus buttons for use in religious ceremonies. About five years ago, she was registered as a peyotero and sold buttons to a distributor in South Texas but the prices were pennies per button, no matter the size, she said.
But after a stint as a home developer in North Texas Garcia said she returned to the Rio Grande Valley when the housing market crashed. Then after her mother died she and her siblings inherited about 500 acres — full of peyote, she said.
One of her relatives owns another ranch of more than 2,000 acres that serves as a native habitat for peyote. Decades ago, that ranch served members of the Native American tribe seeking religious ceremonies on-site.
“We have over there a place where they can stay overnight,” she said. “We have the peyote and they can do their ceremonies there.” But there haven’t been visitors in years, she said.
BUTTONS DOWN, SALES UP
Starr County is one of the few places in the nation where peyote grows naturally. While it’s abundant in northern Mexico, peyote use is illegal there and peyote cannot be exported to the U.S. right now.
Sales and inventory figures tracked by the Texas Department of Public Safety found that approximately $1.5 million peyote buttons were sold in Texas in 2011 — down from its peak of more than $2.25 million in 1997. But recorded wholesale sales are a fraction of that, despite steadily increasing from $300,000 in 1997 to less than $700,000 in 2011. The retail price of individual peyote cacti jumped from $78 to $310 for 100 buttons from 1986 to 2010, but if adjusted for inflation, the price only doubled, according to the Cactus Conservation Institute.
“Lots of ranches in Starr County that are really in sad shape in regards to production of peyote because they’ve been too frequently harvested who really don’t care about the peyote,” said Terry Martin, a researcher that runs the Cactus Conservation Institute in West Texas.
Martin said many ranchers opt to close gates to peyote harvesters and instead garner business of wild game hunters instead.
“Many of the ranches in Starr County that actually have healthy peyote populations are the ones that have 10-foot-high fences to keep the deer in — the amount they would make from the peyote is negligible,” Martin said.
Since it’s a controlled substance once pulled out of the ground, peyote distributors must be registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Drug Enforcement Administration. There is a $25 processing fee for the controlled substances registration and a $25 processing fee for each annual renewal from DPS. Also, registered distributors of peyote must request identification cards for all of their employees. Requirements for purchasing peyote in Texas mean one must be an individual with not less than 25 percent Indian blood who is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe under federal law and a certified member of the Native American Church.
Home-grown peyote requires a manufacturer’s registration, which is $3,047 each year through the DEA, and manufacturers may distribute the cactus but only to one customer — members of the Native American Church. Alternatively, the permit for only distribution of peyote is $1,523 annually and for research is a mere $244 each year.
“It’s not the expense, it’s the paperwork. You have to keep track of every peyote button that’s harvested, who do you sell it to, at what price,” Martin said.
Right now there is only one entity in the U.S. that is registered to grow peyote — the RTI International Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, which sells to researchers.
One major exemption related to the laws of possession and distribution of peyote is when a member of the Native American Church is using it for bona fide religious ceremonies of the church. However, a person who supplies the substance to the church must register and maintain appropriate records and receipts. But there’s a huge grey market when it comes to peyote, Martin said.
“A lot of the peyote harvested is basically off the books. Nobody knows how much is being harvested when you get a private contract between a Native American and a landowner, say in Starr County,” he said. “Or how much is being harvested illegally by poachers, nobody has a clue about that.”
The demand for peyote remains high while the habitat shrinks, said Stacy Schaeffer, a former anthropology professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.
“There isn’t enough peyote for the need in the United States. The land is becoming less and less available for people to harvest the peyote and some of the environment is even being destroyed as well,” Schaeffer said.
Ceremonies involving peyote are used for Native Americans to become closer to the “Great Spirit” or “God” since the mescaline inside the plant can induce hallucinations once ingested.
“I’ve heard many times in meetings that people talk about how peyote saved their lives because they were alcoholics or into harder drugs,” she said. “It wasn’t until they came to the church they started consuming peyote in this ritual that they turned their lives around and kicked the addiction too.”