Live peyote cacti growing in the gardens of Salvador Johnson. Image: Kelvin Box/VICE
Peyote has been a part of Dawn Davis’s life for as long as she can remember. The small, mescaline-producing cactus is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, but Davis’s first encounter with the plant was on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho, where her family would store peyote “buttons” in jars tucked away in the kitchen cabinets. The scientific name of the peyote cactus is Lophophora williamsii, but Davis and her family simply call it “medicine.”
Davis is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, and she was first brought to a “peyote meeting” as an infant. When she was older she learned these meetings were religious ceremonies of the Native American Church (NAC), a syncretic religion that blends elements of Christianity and American Indian ritual, including the use of peyote as a sacrament. Over the years, Davis noticed the peyote used in the ceremonies wasn’t nearly as abundant as when she was a child. When peyote buttons reach maturity, they can be several inches in diameter, but at many of the ceremonies Davis attended, it wasn’t unusual for the buttons to be the size of a penny.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, what Davis observed was the beginning of a deep conservation crisis. Over the last few decades, the peyote supply in the US has rapidly declined because of habitat destruction, illegal poaching, and unsustainable harvesting practices. As she began to look into the issue, Davis realized that she had to take action to preserve this disappearing natural resource that is a core element of the largest indigenous religion in the United States.
Peyote grows in front of a statue in the garden of Salvador Johnson. Image: Kelvin Box/VICE
After receiving her family’s blessing, Davis applied to study peyote conservation as part of her master’s degree at the University of Arizona. Today, she is continuing this research as a doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho and is one of only a handful of scholars researching the crisis. In October I met Davis at Horizons, an annual conference on psychedelics in New York City, to speak with her about how she has spent the past decade working with Texas landowners, government officials, NAC members, and peyoteros (peyote harvesters) to better understand the issue. What she found is a sacred plant on the verge of extinction and a general lack of knowledge about the extent of the problem—but most importantly, she found a way forward.
THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICA’S PEYOTE
There’s a narrow stretch of land that covers about 1,250 square miles between El Paso and Laredo along the southern border of Texas that is the only native peyote habitat in the United States. Known as the peyote gardens, this land looks hardly any different from the rest of western Texas to the untrained eye. It’s flat, desolate, and mostly covered in creosote, a shrub common in the American Southwest. In the shade of the creosote, however, a small thornless cactus can be found bubbling
from the packed, dry earth.
Archaeological evidence suggests that peyote has been used by indigenous people in this region for more than 5,000 years, but it wasn’t until the NAC began to take shape in the late 19th century that the plant found widespread use among tribes across the United States. This was largely fueled by the forced relocation of northern and eastern tribes to reservations in the West, who were introduced to peyote through contact with members of southwestern tribes, such as the Lipan Apache, Carrizo, and Huichol. It’s uncertain how or when peyote became incorporated into NAC ritual, but a 1981 DEA memorandum giving the NAC a peyote exemption places its adoption “sometime between 1870 and 1885.”
Today, the NAC has more than 200,000 members from dozens of tribes. They are united by a belief in the “Great Spirit” and follow an ethical code known as the “peyote road,” which encourages strong family relations, self-reliance, and indigenous camaraderie. As the DEA noted in its memo, over the past century the use of peyote has, in fact, become the “sine qua non of the NAC”—it is central to the church’s ritual. As such, the destruction of peyote’s natural habitat amounts to the destruction of the largest pan-tribal indigenous religion in the United States.
The entrance to the Native American Church in Mirando City, Texas. Image: Kelvin Box/VICE
The plant’s psychoactive properties were introduced to nonindigenous audiences by the pharmacologist Arthur Heffter, who was the first to isolate mescaline from the cactus in 1897. When preparing peyote for consumption, the peyote buttons on the top of the cactus are cut off and dried. The buttons can then be chewed or soaked in water to drink. Mescaline has very similar psychedelic properties to LSD or mushrooms, including open and closed-eyed visuals, altered thought patterns, a body high, and feelings of euphoria. A typical mescaline experience can last for several hours depending on the dose.
By the early 20th century, the indigenous use of peyote for religious purposes had attracted the attention of the US government, which sought to outlaw its use. In Peyote Religion: A History, Omer Stewart details the sustained efforts of prohibitionists in the southern United States to eradicate the consumption of peyote between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This involved seizing and burning tens of thousands of peyote buttons, jailing distributors, and raiding ceremonies. In 1929, peyote was categorized as a “habit-forming drug” by the federal government, but members of the NAC continued to hold clandestine peyote meetings.
The Texas state government banned the possession of peyote in 1967. After members of the NAC petitioned Texas legislators for an exemption, however, the state amended the law to allow persons with at least 25 percent indigenous blood to legally purchase and possess peyote. That same year, the US granted the first licenses for peyote distribution to 13 peyoteros. The legal recognition of peyoteros in Texas marked a turning point in the history of peyote conservation. Not only did it lay the foundations for a legalized peyote economy, in which NAC members could buy their medicine only from state-sanctioned dealers, but it also meant that there was data on peyote consumption in the US for the first time in history.
Up until 2016, peyoteros were required to report their annual peyote sales to the Texas Department of Public Safety (the state no longer requires peyoteros to submit these reports). When Davis analyzed this data there was a clear pattern: The number of peyote buttons sold each year in Texas had been in steady decline since 1998, the year peyote sales peaked at around 2.5 million buttons. Meanwhile, according to the Texas DPS data, the revenue from these sales was increasing. In other words, the peyoteros appeared to be charging a premium for an increasingly rare product. What was less clear, however, was whether a decline in interest, increased costs, lack of availability, or some confluence of these factors was the driving force behind the decline in peyote sales.
THE LAST OF THE PEYOTEROS
The conservation crisis facing the American peyote population has been recognized at least since 1995. That year, a paper published in the Cactus and Succulent Journal by the botanist Edward Anderson described his return to the Texas peyote gardens 30 years after his original research expedition to the area. Anderson noted a tension between peyoteros and the Texas landowners from whom they must lease land in order to harvest the peyote that grows there.
The most serious threat to the sacred cactus was not the peyoteros, whom Anderson described as “good conservationists” that “want to carefully nurture the wild populations so that they will have a steady income.” Instead, it was root-plowing, the practice of preparing land for cattle grazing by tearing up plants at the root, as well as landowners closing their ranches to peyoteros that threatened the supply of peyote available to NAC members. “The long-term prognosis, if present conditions continue to exist, is grim,” Anderson wrote.
Although Anderson sympathized with the landowners, who wished to make their land productive and protect themselves from litigation by anyone who was injured on their ranch while collecting peyote, the closure of peyote harvesting grounds produced “serious tensions” between indigenous people and the ranchers. According to Salvador Johnson, the largest peyote distributor in Texas, 100 percent of the land in Texas where peyote grows is privately owned, which means that if peyoteros are going to harvest peyote, they need permission from landowners.
Salvador Johnson has been harvesting peyote in southern Texas for over 60 years. Today, he is one of only four peyoteros licensed by the DEA to collect and sell peyote to the NAC. Image: Kelvin Box/VICE
Today, there are only four peyoteros who are registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and legally able to collect peyote. At 72 years old, Johnson has been harvesting peyote around Mirando City, Texas, for over 60 years. He told me that there were two significant barriers to licensing new peyoteros. Not only would a new peyotero need a lot of capital—peyoteros pay thousands of dollars for a 30-day lease to harvest on privately owned ranches—but they would have to be able to make the connections with these landowners in the first place.
Johnson said he sells up to 750,000 peyote buttons each year, harvested across 40,000 acres of land. He’s known some of the ranchers for over 40 years, but forming new connections would be a significant obstacle for anyone looking to get licensed as a peyotero.
“The hardest part about this business is getting property to lease,” Johnson told me. “We have a lot of ranchers that still believe peyote is a drug and don’t want to lease. Even if you have the capital, if you don’t have the ranch you’re going nowhere.”
Davis also cited landowners as the single most significant obstacle to understanding the peyote conservation crisis. Although she has good rapport with the last of the peyoteros, she told me they were reluctant to share information about the landowners who lease their land for peyote harvest. In a decade of research, Davis said she has successfully made contact with just one landowner in the peyote gardens.
Peyote buttons drying on a table at the home of Salvador Johnson in Mirando City, Texas. Image: Kelvin Box/VICE
“I understand why peyoteros don’t exactly want you to know their landowner,” Davis said. “It’s a business, and that can possibly cut them out of this business. It could also be out of respect to the landowner who doesn’t want you to know who they are.”
The problem, however, is that engaging with the landowners about the importance
of preserving the peyote that grows on their land is perhaps the only way to save America’s peyote gardens. Although Davis recognizes that there are ways to implement legal requirements to protect peyote, she said this “is only going to anger landowners.”
“A lot of my research is about beginning a dialogue with landowners to see what their perception is about peyote,” Davis said. “They are really the key to this whole thing within the United States.”
THE FUTURE OF AMERICA’S PEYOTE GARDENS
Over three-quarters of the natural peyote habitat is located in Mexico, where the cactus is protected under federal law but is still threatened by extensive silver mining in the region. The same is not true in the United States, where peyote isn’t even recognized as endangered and is not protected by any state or federal laws.
In 2011, Davis traveled to the peyote gardens for the first time and met with Johnson. Davis said that Johnson was following many conservation best practices, such as cycling through the areas where peyote is harvested, but this hadn’t slowed the steady decrease in the size and quantity of peyote buttons in his harvests. Today, the biggest threats to peyote continue to be rapid land development, poaching, and rooting by feral pigs—problems that responsible harvesting by peyoteros can’t solve.
This has led NAC members to look to peyote cultivation as a solution to the peyote shortage in Texas. Davis said there has been an increase in the number of indigenous people growing peyote in greenhouses across the United States, but that this is only a temporary solution to the conservation crisis. Instead, she advocated for creating some sort of incentive structure for landowners, such as conservation easements or tax breaks to encourage the protection of peyote.
Dried peyote buttons. Image: Kelvin Box/VICE
One of the biggest issues when it comes to peyote conservation is characterizing the extent of the problem. To this end, Davis is developing a program to use satellite remote sensing technologies to map peyote populations in southern Texas. But she said that it will be necessary to push for the DEA to reschedule peyote in order to further the conservation of the natural peyote habitat. Although the Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 and amended in 1994 to protect the rights of indigenous people to use peyote for religious purposes, the DEA still considers the cactus to be a Schedule I substance that has “no currently accepted medical use.” This makes it exceedingly hard for individuals to become licensed peyoteros.
“When you go and apply for this license, it’s not like you can just fill out this application and they get back to you in seven to ten days,” Davis said. “It’s a really deep process. They’re looking at your wife, your kids, your friends. They go into a very, very intense background search.”
Peyoteros are the link between landowners and peyotists that Davis considers to be vital for conserving peyote. Indeed, their businesses make them some of the strongest advocates for the plant’s conservation. If no new peyoteros receive licenses from the DEA, it will eventually be incumbent upon NAC members to harvest their own peyote, form relationships with landowners, and self-monitor for sustainable harvesting practices. At the same time, now that the Texas Department of Public Safety no longer requires peyoteros to report their peyote sales, it’s nearly impossible for researchers like Davis to accurately assess peyote decline.
Johnson takes issue with researchers’ characterization of the peyote crisis. He said he hasn’t had any problem meeting the demand of his customers and that researchers coming into the area declaring a conservation problem don’t know the whole picture.
“People who do research come once or twice a year, and now they’re an expert of how we’re supposed to grow it and how often we should cut it,” Johnson said. “They don’t really know firsthand or have never been in a garden to harvest peyote.”
“I have a big problem with anybody that would say we are short, because now they’re putting themselves in the same category as God, and he’s the one that put it here on earth,” Johnson added. “We can only harvest what God gives us. We have no control over it.”
At a time when the United States is experiencing what the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has called a “psychedelic renaissance,” peyote continues to be woefully under studied compared with other entheogens, such as ayahuasca. Davis said this is likely due to the cactus’s association with an organized indigenous religion. For now, the future of peyote gardens in the United States looks bleak, but research by people like Davis shows that it doesn’t have to be.
“The work I do is bigger than me,” Davis said. “If you take the entire religious aspect out of it, you have a plant that’s in danger. One way or the other it needs protection.”