A national Indigenous church is lobbying Congress and the federal government to put money behind protecting habitats for the peyote cactus. The plant, which contains the naturally occurring psychedelic mescaline, grows wild in southern Texas, as well as Mexico, and is sacred to many Indigenous traditions. But if habitats aren’t preserved, people’s access could disappear.
On September 14, Native News Online reported that leaders of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) were holding meetings with US senators and representatives throughout the week. According to NACNA’s Facebook page, they met with elected officials from both parties representing Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Arizona.
The NACNA is requesting that the federal departments of the Interior or Agriculture allocate $5 million to preserve peyote habitat, by paying landowners who agree to set aside land as protected sanctuary. It also requests the formation of an advisory committee, including private, tribal, state and federal representatives, to explore ways to preserve peyote.
The NACNA is a national religious organization representing over 100,000 members and 100 tribes, with chapters in 30 states. Members practice a religion that combines Christianity with traditional Indigenous beliefs. It features sacramental use of peyote as a way to connect the believer with God. (A NACNA representative was not able to respond to Filter‘s request for comment by publication time; a follow-up interview is planned.)
While mescaline is federally classified as a Schedule I illegal substance, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978 and its 1994 amendments protect the “nondrug” use of peyote in “bona fide religious ceremonies.” Anyone who harvests and sells it for use by federally recognized tribes is supposed to obtain a special license from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“Peyote is not an endangered species … It is, however, incredibly pressured, and what is endangered is populations that are accessible to harvesting.”
Over 80 percent of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) habitat is found in Mexico. In the US, it grows only in southern Texas, along the Rio Grande. The cactus produces mescaline, a drug with similar effects to LSD and psilocybin that acts on the brain’s serotonin system (several species of South American cacti also produce mescaline).
“Peyote is not an endangered species,” Keeper Trout, co-founder of the Cactus Conservation Institute, told Filter. “If it was, people could not harvest millions of them every year. It is, however, incredibly pressured, and what is endangered is populations that are accessible to harvesting. What’s endangered is the Native American Church and their ceremonies. There’s always going to be peyote somewhere that people can’t access or they don’t know about.”
Trout explained that peyote is being depleted because of overdevelopment of its lands, which are cleared by root plowing for cattle ranching, agriculture, wind towers, and residential and business real estate.
Meanwhile, other lands that are not cleared are bought by private owners, then fenced off. This blocks the peyote from being harvested. Under the historical rules governing peyote harvesting in Texas, landowners cannot grow or move peyote on their property—but they can destroy it. Specially licensed distributors working on behalf of the Native American Church may receive permission from landowners to harvest peyote, but this is not guaranteed. If permission is given, landowners may charge a flat fee for harvesters to take as much peyote as they want. Landowners are restricted from charging higher fees based on the weight of the harvest—doing so could even subject them to criminal drug charges.
Concerns over the future of accessible peyote have sometimes divided Indigenous communties and drug policy reform advocates.
These rules effectively limit the areas where peyote can be harvested, encourage over-harvesting in those areas where it can be retrieved, and prevent new peyote being grown. Although peyote can regrow if the top of the plant is harvested correctly, harvesting must be careful and sparing for this to happen. The cactus can take many years to mature and flower.
Concerns over the future of accessible peyote have sometimes divided Indigenous communties and drug policy reform advocates. In 2019, Oakland became the US first city to decriminalize naturally occurring psychedelics—including peyote—for possession and cultivation. Another Californian city, Santa Cruz, followed Oakland’s lead in decriminalizing psychedelics in January 2020—only to very publicly reverse course in October 2021, removing peyote and other mescaline-containing cacti from its decriminalization law. This reversal followed opposition from groups like the National Council of Native American Churches, which argued that decriminalization would encourage non-Indigenous people to illegally poach peyote from stressed habitats.
More recently, in 2022, an unsuccessful California effort to decriminalize psychedelics statewide lost the support of advocacy group Decriminalize Nature in part because it exempted peyote. Decriminalize Nature has countered objections to peyote decriminalization with a plan calling for large-scale cultivation to protect the species.
Cultivation of peyote could provide sources for non-religious use, but it wouldn’t directly address a key demand of some Native American Church members—that peyote for their sacraments be grown wild, untouched by human hands.
“What some Indigenous people object to is the idea that human hands are involved,” Trout said, explaining that beliefs in the supernatural status of peyote can mean that discussion of its cultivation may cause offense.
“If this is done in a way that was respectful to all interests, I believe it could work.”
Trout agreed that the plan now being advanced by the NACNA—to pay landowners to protect peyote habitats—could help preserve its populations. For it to be truly effective, he said, it would need to be scaled up with a lot more money than $5 million. The federal government would need to get many landowners on board to preserve enough habitat. Based on Trout’s estimation, to harvest 1 million peyote buttons a year, you would need over 200 square miles of peyote population, fragmented over a large expanse of land.
“I think it’s probably one of the most sensible approaches,” Trout said of the NACNA’s lobbying effort for conservation easements. “The reality is where you have the best peyote populations, it’s actually the most poor terrain for agriculture and everything else. If this is done in a way that was respectful to all interests, I believe it could work.”
Photograph of Lophophora williamsii in South Texas by Cactus Conservation Institute