That Time Scientists Blasted Peyote Prohibitionists

By Daniel Oberhaus on December 4, 2018

Sixty years ago, scientists defended the Native American Church’s right to use peyote in its religious rituals. Now scientists are renewing the call to protect the right of indigenous peoples around the world to use psychedelics.

The world is in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance thanks to the slow liberalization of federal laws regulating the study and use of psychedelics. Although drugs like MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD are finally being recognized as legitimate treatments for a variety of psychological and physical ailments, not all psychedelic substances have it so good. Of particular concern is ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew native to South America that has been used religiously and medicinally by indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

Ayahuasca is a concoction of plants found in the Amazon, but its psychedelic properties are mostly derived from the vine from which it takes its name. When the ayahuasca vine is combined with Psychotria viridis leaf it activates the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) contained in the plant. If a person drinks the resulting brew, it results in an intense psychedelic experience that often lasts for hours and is characterized by visits to other worlds, contact with the divine, and other out-of-body experiences.

Despite the long history of indigenous ayahuasca practices, in recent years its ceremonial use has become the target of law enforcement agencies around the world. Religious ceremonies in South America have frequently been raided and the practitioners arrested. Authorities have also made a point of seizing ayahuasca shipments sent to practicing shamans abroad, which has resulted in a number of high profile legal cases asserting their religious right to use the psychedelic for religious purposes.

In 2012, a number of leading ayahuasca researchers signed their name to a “Statement on Ayahuasca” in the International Journal of Drug Policy that urged regulatory authorities “to demonstrate tolerance” and allow religious groups to continue using ayahuasca. Although the situation has improved somewhat in the last six years, thanks to efforts of groups like the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, the plant is still considered an illegal substance in the much of United States, Europe and Australia.

Fortunately for these ayahuasca researchers, however, their campaign on behalf of the religious use of psychedelics is not without precedence. In fact, over 60 years before they wrote their statement another group of psychedelic researchers issued a similar proclamation regarding the religious use of peyote in the United States. Their efforts helped further the cause against prohibitionists who sought to outlaw the use of peyote outright and today indigenous communities in the United States are legally allowed to take peyote as part of their religious rituals.

On November 30, 1951, five of the foremost peyote researchers in the United States published a “Statement on Peyote” in the prestigious journal Science. Their statement was a searing indictment of  the “national campaign against narcotics” that was just beginning in the US at the time and had claimed the use of peyote as one of its first victims. According to the researchers, this anti-peyote “propaganda” was largely fueled by the ignorance of the prohibitionists, who understood little about what peyote was or how it was used by Native Americans in their religious ceremonies.

Peyote is a small, thornless cactus that grows in southern Texas and northern Mexico whose psychedelic properties are derived from the mescaline contained within the cactus’ flesh. The tops of peyote cacti are cut off and driedthereby producing peyote “buttons”and consumed as part of ceremonies overseen by the Native American Church (NAC), the largest pan-tribal indigenous religion in the U.S. Although the NAC pre-dated the scientists’ statement by over 80 years, its use of peyote as a sacrament had been under attack by US lawmakers from the beginning.

As detailed by Omer Stewart, one of the signers of the statement on peyote and author of Peyote Religion, arguably the authoritative study of peyotism in America, the early history of the NAC was defined by the frequent harassment of indigenous peyote users and frequent raids on peyote ceremonies that would often result in the destruction of thousands of peyote buttons. As Stewart and his co-signers argued, however, the anti-peyote prohibitionists fundamentally misunderstood how Native Americans were using the cactus.

At the time the researchers issued their statement, the U.S. was ramping up a war on narcotics that prefigured Nixon’s “war on drugs” that continues to this day. Critics of indigenous peyote use would falsely label peyote as a narcotic and characterize it as an intoxicating, habit forming substance that was used “orgiastically” by members of the NAC. Yet as Stewart and his colleagues pointed out, a narcotic is a drug that “allays sensibility, relieves pain and produces profound sleep,” while an intoxicant is something that “excites or stupefies.”

Peyote, however, fit neither of these descriptions. It doesn’t “stupefy or produce muscular incoordination,” produces no hangovers, and habitual users didn’t develop an increased tolerance or dependence on the cactus.

“As for the immorality that is supposed to accompany its use,” Stewart and his collaborators wrote, “since no orgies are known to occur among any Indian tribes of North America, the charge has as much validity as the ancient Roman accusation of a similar nature against the early Christians.”

Indeed, peyotism as practiced by the Native American Church gave every indication that it was used for bonafide religious purposes “in a manner corresponding to the bread and wine of white Christians.” According to the researchers, many of whom had spent years studying peyote and partaking in NAC rituals, the buttons were usually taken communally and followed by an all-night prayer session by the devotees. The use of peyote as sacrament was motivated by a “belief that God put some of his Holy Spirit into peyote, which he gave to Indians. By eating the sacramental peyote the Indian absorbs God’s spirit.”

After a series of legal battles throughout the '60s and '70s, the religious use of peyote by indigenous Americans was finally recognized by federal law in the early '90s. Although peyote is still considered a Schedule I narcotic (i.e., a drug without any recognized medicinal benefits) in the eyes of the US Drug Enforcement Administration for anyone who is not indigenous, its use is protected for anyone with at least 25 percent Native American blood.

This victory for the religious use of peyote by indigenous Americans was helped in no small part by the non-indigenous researchers who used evidence-based arguments to counter prohibitionist law makers. Today, a similar plight faces religious groups such as Brazil’s Santo Daime and the Uniao do Vegetal, whose members are often targeted by law enforcement agents.

Like peyote prohibitionists, the anti-ayahuasca crowd tends to fundamentally misunderstand how the ancient brew is used in a religious context and its effects on users. Contrary to modern propaganda, all evidence suggests that ayahuasca is “reasonably safe” (no deaths have ever been attributed directly to the plant) and an integral part of legitimate indigenous religions that date back hundreds of years. Based on the evidence, the authors of the statement on ayahuasca argue that prohibition of this sacred plant amounts to a gross denial of religious freedom for practitioners.

Although ayahuasca use is still largely persecuted around the globe, there are some signs that things are improving. In 2016, after a lengthy legal battle that took the group all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, the Uniao de Vegetal was finally granted permission to build a church in New Mexico and take ayahuasca as part of their ceremonies. Earlier this year in Canada, two religious groups were also granted the right to consume the psychedelic brew.  

Despite these advances, however, ayahuasca ceremonies continue to be raided and practitioners stigmatized for their religious use of the potent psychedelic. Yet thanks to the work of outspoken shamans and ayahuasca researchers, evidence-based arguments for the legitimacy of ayahuasca will hopefully bring the era of ayahuasca prosecution to an end.

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