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'Peyote pariah' faces legal, religion woes

BENJAMIN, Utah County — James Warren "Flaming Eagle" Mooney says he has seen people who use the peyote cactus freed from drug addiction and mental illness.

Now the mystical medicine he administers to his followers could cost Mooney his own freedom.

On Oct. 10, sheriff's deputies raided Mooney's home and his adjoining church, seizing a ceremonial pipe, a computer and 33 pounds of peyote. Mooney was charged with a dozen counts of drug trafficking and one count of racketeering.

If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

He has also become a peyote pariah, scorned by medicine men convinced peyote should be reserved for American Indians.

A defiant Mooney says he will do what it takes to get the medicine to those who need it.

"Being prosecuted and facing these charges, this is coming from my heart, I consider it an honor," he said.

For the approximately 250,000 members in 100 branches of the Native American Church, peyote ceremonies are a sacrament, the flesh of God put on earth to provide clarity and bring followers closer to the Creator.

It is illegal to ingest peyote, a hallucinogen, in Utah and at least 27 other states. But in 1994, Congress carved out exemptions for "the practice of a traditional Indian religion" by members of federally recognized tribes.

Utah County Attorney David Wayment argues the exemptions don't apply to Mooney, who is not enrolled in a tribe and administers peyote primarily to whites.

"Whether or not Mr. Mooney can possess peyote, certainly he cannot be distributing peyote to non-Indians," Wayment said.

Mooney said he was a member of the Oklevueha Seminole Band — which is not federally recognized — until the new chief threw him out for conducting peyote ceremonies. He makes no apologies for giving peyote to whites.

Prohibiting anyone from taking part in peyote ceremonies would violate the First Amendment, Mooney argues. He has sued Utah County in federal court claiming religious discrimination and wants the county to return about 12,000 bulbs of peyote seized from his home.

The tiny, spineless peyote cactus grows in the desert of southern Texas and northern Mexico. The bulbs are eaten or brewed into a tea consumed during prayer ceremonies that can last all night, said Edward Anderson, a botanist in Phoenix and author of "Peyote: The Divine Cactus."

The plant is bitter and can cause vomiting. It also contains a small amount of mescaline, which heightens perceptions of colors and intensifies other senses. The effect is about a thousand times less powerful than LSD, Anderson said.

Mooney, 57, who says he is a descendant of the Seminole chief Osceola, is a practicing Mormon but also leads the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church.

He spent 10 years in law enforcement, six working in the Utah State Prison. A commendation from Gov. Mike Leavitt for his prison work hangs on the wall of his church.

While working in prison, Mooney met Victor Bailey, who had bounced in and out of jail before taking peyote. Now Bailey says his life is in order, he is married and is an active Mormon.

Others tell similar stories: Gaylen Nebeker said peyote weaned him from cocaine and saved his marriage. Shauna Sudbury said it enabled her to stop taking medications for manic-depression. Lianne Morrow said it healed emotional scars from a divorce.

"This has brought me a lot closer to God. It has helped me to heal," Nebeker said.

Mooney said he was cured of manic-depression by peyote.

"Since I have been on this planet with the peyote, we have helped thousands of people get off heroin, come to terms with whatever their same-sex identities are" and overcome other challenges, he said.

But Wayment argues Mooney heads a drug-distribution ring, using "roadmen" to dispense peyote across the state. Distribution charges against one of Mooney's associates are pending.

Mooney is also scorned by medicine men who bristle at his practices, including seeking $200 donations from those who attend his church services.

Mooney said the donations offset church costs and that no one who couldn't afford to pay has been turned away.

He has been disavowed by branches of the Native American Church and was forced to resign as vice president of a Salt Lake City NAC chapter.

"Indians have no remorse for what has happened to him," said Dan Edwards, director of American Indian Studies at the University of Utah. "It's like (whites) have taken our land, you've taken our culture and now you're taking our religion, and Indians feel it's sacrilegious."

Church leaders also fear that spreading ritual peyote use beyond American Indians could result in Congress rescinding the exemptions they worked hard to win.