Representatives of several Utah Native American organizations have asked lawmakers to support a bill that would restrict the use of the hallucinogenic cactus known as peyote to only members of a federally recognized Indian tribe.
The Native American leaders joined Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and local law enforcement on Wednesday at the state Capitol to lend support to HB60, which deals with the issue of peyote, and passed a House committee earlier in the day.
"This law will help stop people from using religion as an excuse to abuse drugs," Shurtleff said. "It will also give police and prosecutors the tools to identify those who do and do not have a legitimate reason to possess peyote."
Supporters say HB60 will bring Utah law into line with federal law when it comes to who can, and who cannot, possess and use peyote. Under federal law, only members of a federally recognized Indian tribe can use and possess peyote for the purpose of religious ceremonies. Deputy Utah Attorney General Kris Leonard said the lack of a clear definition of who is considered a Native American under Utah law led in part to the Utah Supreme Court ruling in 2004 stating a Utah County couple had a right to distribute peyote to non-Indian followers of their Native American church.
James "Flaming Eagle" and Linda Mooney were charged with felony drug possession after drug agents raided their church in Benjamin, but the state Supreme Court concluded that under Utah law, the Mooneys had a right to use peyote for religious ceremonies and threw out their conviction. The couple is currently facing federal drug distribution charges after being indicted last year.
Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, had tried to push the same bill last year only to have it die in the Senate after passing the House, but with fresh support from those close to the issue, Oda hopes to have the bill pass this year.
"Some people in Utah have made a mockery of Native American religion, making money in the guise of religious freedom," Oda told fellow members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee, which advanced the bill to the House by a unanimous vote.
Carma Nez, a Navajo who is vice president of the local Native American Church of North America, said she has used peyote in sacred ceremonies since she was a little girl. Through tears, Nez said she felt Mooney and his followers were "making a mockery of our way of life."
Ute religious leader Clifford Duncan told committee members he was hurt that a legal loophole was allowing peyote to be used by members of the general public.
"I'm saddened that people will trample on something so sacred to Native Americans," Duncan said. "We need to stop our culture from being exploited."