Legal Consequences of Peyote Use

Mescaline is a powerful hallucinogen found in peyote cactus that causes visions and other sensory manifestations that are not real. This is due to the chemical reaction that the drug has with neural pathways in the brain. Read here to learn more about the highs or “trips” of mescaline and the effects of peyote on the brain. Native Americans had been consuming peyote in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. It wasn`t until peyote received negative attention that its traditions were threatened. To safeguard their religious practices, Native Americans decided to establish a formal church that would be protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Mosher & Akins, 2014). Native Americans founded the Native American Church (NAC), a formal organization in which peyote could still be used (Weil & Rosen, 2004). The federal government has recognized the efforts of Native Americans and “since 1965, the religious use of peyote by Native Americans has been protected by U.S. federal law” (Mosher and Akins, 2014, p. 143). Because peyote use was protected only by federal law, many Native Americans had to continue their efforts to expand their rights at the state level (Mosher & Akins, 2014).

The most feared effect of peyote was that peyote euphoria turned Native Americans into violent individuals who came to whites and their colonies. The article “Peyote Bean Causes Frenzy” (1919) claimed that Native Americans made violent rounds after peyote was used, targeting white residents and settlements. In a state of savage drunkenness, an Indian man reportedly went wild, grabbing a gun and walking through the city to shoot anyone in sight. Many of the wars and acts of violence in which Native Americans were involved were attributed to their use of peyote (Los Angeles Times, 1919). The research does not support any of these claims. Richard Schultes` (1938) study concluded that when peyote was used, “there is no tendency to commit acts of violence” (p. 702). In addition to the strength of the drug, these early media reports claimed that peyote use had many harmful physical effects (The New York Times, 1923; Welsh, 1918). Among them were tremors, convulsions, paralysis, rapid breathing, blurred vision, hallucinations, and even death (The New York Times, 1923; Welsh, 1918).

A series of 25 deaths in 2 years in utes have been attributed to the use of peyote (Welsh, 1918). While there is no conclusive evidence of peyote-related deaths, research suggests that this is unlikely because peyote use has no serious effects or reactions (Mosher & Akins, 2014). The Carstairs and Cantrell (2010) peyote effects study examined a California Poison Control System database from 1997 to 2008 and concluded that no deaths were attributable to peyote use (Carstairs and Cantrell, 2010). In an effort to protect their religious practices and peyote use, Native Americans founded the Native American Church (Mosher & Akins, 2014). As a formal and organized religion, Native American rights and the use of peyote for religious ceremonies would be protected (Mosher & Akins, 2014). Since 1965, U.S. federal law has protected the use of peyote by Native Americans for religious purposes (Mosher and Akins, 2014). Growing fear and hostility from the media weighed heavily on politics, and in 1970 the federal government enacted the Controlled Substances Act, designating peyote as a Schedule I drug (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2013). To date, the use of peyote is illegal and only Native Americans are allowed to use it under the American Religious Freedom Act of 1994 (Mosher & Akins, 2014). Peyote has received a great deal of attention from physicians trying to study its medicinal benefits (Flam, 2003; Krans, 2013). Physicians and researchers agree that it is important to study the efficacy and safety of hallucinogenic drugs in order to understand their effects and to expand the tools of the medical arsenal (Flam, 2003; Kerns, 2013).

While the media made it clear 100 years ago that a lot of harm was caused by peyote use, studies have shown little to no long-term effects on the brain from using peyote and other hallucinogenic drugs. Rather, peyote may be an effective treatment for alcoholism (Halpern et al., 2005), and peyote users actually have a lower rate of mental health problems than non-users (Krans, 2013; Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Its use actually reduces the risk of mental illness (Flam, 2003; Kerns, 2013). In addition, news reports suggest that peyote has had no history of abuse, trafficking or addiction over the past 100 years, contradicting many of the earliest accounts (Flam, 2003). In the state of Arizona, it is considered illegal to knowingly drink or inhale a controlled substance known to emit toxic fumes. Some of the most common substances containing aerosols, isopropyl and adhesives. Peyote looks like small bud-like protuberances found on top of cactus plants. They are also called peyote buds because of their appearance.

These pimples are usually dried and chewed or mixed in water to make a hallucinogenic drink. They are also ground into powder and taken in capsules or smoked with tobacco and cannabis. According to reports, peyote-using parents spread these ideas to their children (The New York Times, 1923). Thus, young people also believed that they did not need treatment by doctors because peyote was the cure for all diseases (The New York Times, 1923). In addition, children of peyote-using parents have been described as underdeveloped, boring, irresponsible, and unreliable (The New York Times, 1923). However, research has not shown a direct link between peyote and cognitive problems (Halpern et al., 2005). The American Indian Freedom Religious Act of 1978 protected the use of peyote and the free exercise of religion by Native Americans (Mosher & Akins, 2014). The American Indian Freedom Religious Act (1978) protected and preserved the right of Native Americans to practice their religion, possess sacred artifacts, have access to sacred sites, and pray in ceremonies. In 1990, Native Americans challenged their right to use peyote at the state level (Oregon) in Employment Division of Oregon vs. Smith (Mosher & Akins, 2014).

The case involved two individuals (NAC supporters) who were laid off because of their peyote use. The trial began because the two NAC supporters wanted to receive unemployment benefits. In its second decision in that case, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the use of sacramental peyote violated the prohibition of state law, but also that the ban itself violated the constitution`s free exercise clause. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the free exercise clause allowed the state to prohibit the use of sacramental peyote and deny unemployment benefits to the two NAC supporters. The result of this decision was the amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 of 1994. The 1994 amendments extended the rights of Native Americans at the state level. The use, possession, and transportation of peyote were now protected by federal and state laws. The time it takes for mescaline to work and the duration of the psychedelic effect of the drug can vary from person to person, as can the rate of recognition of the substance. Read here to learn more about the lifespan of mescaline and peyote.

The positive attitude towards peyote has helped to positively represent music festivals and social events such as Coachella and Burning Man. Despite the well-known use of psychedelic drugs such as peyote, these musical events are not negatively publicized (Krans, 2013). The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), founded to promote harm reduction among psychedelic and hallucinogenic drug users (Doblin, 1999), was present at Burning Man to assist users. While early media portrayed these volunteers as promoters of drug use, current media point out that even if MAPS was available to provide services, no one needed medical help during the festival (Kerns, 2013). Exaggerated claims and beliefs about peyote have given way to further moral panic. Moral panic occurs when certain group practices or behaviours receive negative attention (Coomber, McElrath, Meacham, & Moore, 2013). The media portray these behaviours as problematic and as a growing problem that needs to be addressed (Coomber et al., 2013). Moral panic was part of the United States, starting with opium in the early 1900s and more recently with methamphetamine in the 1990s (Mosher and Akins, 2014). One of the least known, but most controversial, panics is peyote. This article will analyze media sources from before the criminalization of peyote and media from the past 10 years to show how the outrageous allegations created a moral panic that allowed the government to crack down on so-called “deviant” behavior. The article will examine academic research that will show how the moral panic surrounding peyote and Native Americans was socially constructed. This social construct consisted of labeling their behavior as deviant, establishing it as a social problem, and necessitating the repression of Native Americans and their use of peyote.

Finally, the article will explain how this panic triggered the criminalization of peyote and led to a series of measures in the United States.