Lights came on to reveal bodies seated at desks, leaning on walls, crowded cross-legged at the feet of the speaker. Wherever they found a sliver of space, attendees of the 2019 Arizona Psychedelics Conference were piled into the lecture hall.
Having just educated the audience about his clinic’s cannabis-based method of trauma therapy, the presenting psychotherapist went on to advertise clinical training programs, available at the price of $1,433 a month for three months.
A Navajo man raised his hand, its brown color pronounced in a room crowded by mostly middle-class white people.
“You’ve attached your ego to it. The plants do the work, not you, not your training. They don’t need your help to heal,” he said.
The presenter waffled unconvincingly, then moved on to another commenter, a young white woman who offered shallow praise and swept the conversation away from the criticism. Meanwhile, the Navajo man moved to exit.
Later in the hallway, he expanded upon his thoughts.
“Its good for people to start, from a medical standpoint, incorporating natural-based medicines, plant medicines, into treatment,” he said, calm yet frustrated. “But when we get into where professionals begin to claim that [the healing] is because of them, then they’re starting to get into the controlling of the medicine.”
He considered his speech a moment, then continued. “They can take that to a whole different level of trying to analyze and get into the scientific nature of the spirit of the medicine, and the medicine isn’t for that.”
The medicine isn’t for that.
This man’s words reveal a distinct perspective on psychedelics. Distinct from the impartial politics of recreational users, distinct from the medical practitioners whose banners wave for more science, more control. This was a perspective of defense, of protection. Not protection for people, but for the plants themselves—the medicine. “Don’t try to control, don’t try to understand,” this perspective says. “The medicine isn’t for that.”
Peyote: A Brief History
The woodlands of Europe grow psilocybin mushrooms. The jungles of the Amazon boast the Banisteriopsis vines of ayahuasca. Here in the deserts of the southwestern United States, we have cacti.
One species, Echinopsis pachanoi, was native to Peru but brought to the U.S. as ornamentation for dry-climate gardens. Commonly known as San Pedro cactus, it was so named for the Christian Saint Peter. Saint Peter the Christian holds the keys to heaven. San Pedro the cactus holds mescaline, a powerfully psychoactive alkaloid.
But there is another, more indigenous source of mescaline in the Southwest. Lophophora williamsii—most commonly known as peyote. Native to the Chihuahuan Desert, peyote grows mostly in Mexico and southwestern Texas, but may be found all along the borderlands of the southwestern U.S.
Because it contains mescaline, peyote induces a powerful hallucinogenic effect when chewed or boiled into a tea. Peyote also contains the alkaloid hordenine, by which peyote extracts also have strong antibacterial properties.
Historically, these properties of peyote have been used in the treatment of ailments such as toothache, fever, rheumatism, the pain of childbirth and more. A 2005 study involving the radiocarbon dating of harvested peyote buttons found at the Shulma Caves archaeological site in Texas suggested that native North Americans have been using peyote for its psychoactive and curative properties for at least five and a half thousand years. Despite this evident legacy of use, U.S. law considers peyote a Schedule I narcotic, citing “no known acceptable medical use,” in its classification.
Such willful ignorance (or deceit) on behalf of the law may have something to do with a man named Quanah Parker and the religious movement now known as the Native American Church.
The Native American Church
Parker was a Comanche chief living around the turn of the 19th century. While visiting family in south Texas, Parker was gored to near-death by an errant bull. In the clutches of mortal fever, he was revived by a Mexican curandera, who treated Parker with peyote tea.
In the wake of his salvation, Parker became an ambassador of the peyote religion. A tradition once held singly by the indigenous people of Mexico, such as the Huichol, Parker’s advocacy brought peyote religion north to the U.S., where it thrived among many tribes such as the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Ute and the Navajo.
It was precisely this popularity that made peyote a target for the genocidal U.S. government. Seeking to suppress all aspects of native culture, especially those that had cross-tribal appeal, U.S. authorities banned peyote religion alongside ceremonies such as the Ghost Dance, which were deemed dangerous for their ability to unite Native Americans.
The de facto penalty for practicing religion against these bans was death, often by massacre, as was the case at Wounded Knee, where around 300 Lakota, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by the U.S. Army for gathering in association with the Ghost Dance. Peyote’s current classification as a Schedule I narcotic can be understood as a direct continuation of these genocidal policies.
Nonetheless, even in the face of persecution, Parker’s influence, and the popularity of peyote religion could not be undone. Around 1890, the widespread followers of peyote religion organized into the Native American Church (NAC).
Contemporary peyote use among Native Americans is almost entirely under the auspices of the NAC. Formed in the late 19th century as a syncretic mingling of indigenous peyote religions and Christianity, the NAC is now the largest religious organization of Native Americans across the U.S., Canada and Mexico with recent polls numbering membership around 250,000.
Under the protection of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, members of the NAC won the exclusive federal right to possess, transport and use peyote as sacrament for religious purposes. State law in Arizona is a bit trickier on the subject.
According to Arizona Laws 13-3402, it’s a felony to have or sell peyote, but you can defend your possession if you can demonstrate legitimate religious use.
In some respects, this means that peyote is functionally decriminalized in Arizona, as you’re not likely to be pursued by law enforcement for its use. Other areas of the country are catching up, finding their own paths to decriminalization.
In June, following Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin a month earlier, Oakland City Council voted unanimously to decriminalize psilocybin and all “entheogenic plants,” that is, psychoactive plants used in pursuit of spiritual or religious experience. Peyote falls easily into this category.
Reasoning in support of these votes includes increased potential for medical research, increased access to the spiritual benefits of plant medicines, and decreased spending on law enforcement of drug policies deemed misguided.
But some peyote users are not celebrating these legislative changes.
To read the full article along with part one and two of The Mind’s Horizon, visit www.flaglive.com.