Facebook Twitter

Truth about peyote in eye of beholders

Some warn of its dangers; others defend religious use

SHARE Truth about peyote in eye of beholders

High in the mountains of northern Mexico, a cactus grows.

Its round green buttons are sliced from the root, dried in the sun and ingested as a sacrament by the natives, who believe the buttons are hoof prints left by a god.

The first time Paul Larsen took the buttons, commonly called peyote, he hoped they would make him feel closer to a higher power. Instead, they made him vomit.

"Of all the drugs out there, it's not a recreational drug," said Larsen, a University of Utah film professor who made a documentary on peyote. "It has a horrendous taste. Think of the worst thing you've ever tasted and multiply it by 10."

Much has been written about peyote, a mind-altering drug, since James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney was arrested four years ago in Spanish Fork for distributing it to members of his church, but there is little understanding outside of American Indian circles of what the drug is, what it does, and what it means to members of the Native American Church.

Last month, in a landmark decision with sweeping implications, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Mooney could give peyote to members of his church, regardless of race. The ruling contradicted a 1994 law that made peyote use legal only among members of federally recognized tribes.

Peyote only grows in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental and north of the border near Laredo, Texas. It contains a small amount of mescaline, a hallucinogen, but is said to be about 1,000 times less powerful than LSD. The buttons are consumed whole, crushed into a powder, or brewed as a tea. They are not smoked.

Peyote originated as a drug, or medicine, among Mexican natives some 10,000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence.

Today, the drug is used in religious ceremonies by some branches of the Native American Church, which has around 250,000 members. Church members say it doesn't make them feel high (pharmacologists say hallucinations are uncommon); instead, most report a feeling of wrenching introspection.

Mooney calls the drug a "truth serum" because he says it forces users to recognize who they really are and confront buried secrets. For this reason, he found it an especially effective tool for recovering drug addicts and sex offenders.

Nick Stark, an Ogden resident and member of Mooney's Oklevueha Native American Church, was first given peyote by friends who discovered it on a trip to Peru. Soon, Stark was living for months at a time in a Peruvian jungle with a shaman, drinking the "magic medicine." When he came back he considered himself a medicine man.

"I met God in the jungle," said Stark, who is white but has been adopted into an Amazonian tribe. "I'm a shaman, a medicine man, whatever you want to call it. I don't go around preaching, having Sunday School services and telling people they're going to hell, but I work for God."

Indeed, much of the misunderstanding Utahns have with Stark's church stems from the fact it appears to have little in common with organized religion. The chapel is a tepee, a patch of grass or a riverbank. There are no officers, no membership records. For law enforcement officials, neighbors and other American Indians, this caused suspicion. Were Stark and Mooney bona fide spiritual leaders or were they a pair of pariahs using the church as a guise to sell drugs?

Mooney charged $200 per ceremony, but some participants insisted on giving more, he said. One gave him $250,000, another $500,000. He bought peyote from Salvador Johnson, one of four "peyoteros" authorized to harvest buttons by the Texas Department of Public Safety, for $200 per 1,000 buttons.

Stark insists his and Mooney's intentions are pure. He said one summer they helped an estimated 2,000 people in ceremonies held in a tepee near Benjamin in Utah County. At its height, the church had thousands of members, he said.

"We would find out pretty quickly if they were really there for a spiritual experience," Stark said. "The peyote takes care of people that are just there for a psychedelic experience. It knocks them out, makes them sick as a dog. The peyote knows."

During the typical ceremony, participants sat around a fire as Mooney passed around peyote. He sometimes smoked a pipe as he gently probed participants, asking why they had come. For most, the first hour or so is torturous.

"It sent me into the darkest corners of my soul. It was nightmarish," said Paul Larsen, the film professor who made "A Good Day to Die," a documentary on peyote. "I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking I had to take peyote. It only went away when I realized there wasn't a ceremony that night."

While making the documentary, Larsen talked to a man so addicted to drugs he prowled hospital halls hoping to find pills on the floor that would make him high. When he took peyote, he vomited for 40 minutes and swore he would never take it again.

The initial adverse reaction to the drug is a test of faith, Stark said, and a purging of spiritual uncleanliness. Those with faith will ask for more. "Then it becomes the most incredible and warm experience you'll ever have in your life," he said.

Larsen described using peyote as breaking through the veil that separates heaven and earth. Stark said the ceremonies helped heroin and cocaine addicts recognize a higher power and find the strength to stop using. Larsen saw it help men contemplating suicide or divorce.

"It's not like magic," he said. "It's like any religious experience — you've got to come with desire."

Some members of the Native American Church do not use peyote in ceremonies. Phillip "Cloudpiler" Landis, a medicine man with the Nez Perce tribe in southern Idaho, says he counsels church members against it. Some in his church have become addicted to the drug.

"I don't believe in using peyote to help people get off drugs," he said. "It's like taking Paxil to get off Prozac."

Since the Utah Supreme Court ruling, neither Mooney nor Stark has administered peyote. Stark used to hold ceremonies in a tepee in his back yard. Now only the skeleton frame of the tepee remains. But he plans to rebuild the tepee soon and pass around the peyote buttons he considers a sacrament.

"I feel for the people we couldn't help over the last four years," he said. "We couldn't help them because we couldn't use the medicine. I pray for them. I've had candles burning for four years."

E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com