Why some Native Americans are concerned about medicinal and recreational use of peyote

By Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2024 - 9:01pm
Updated: Thursday, January 25, 2024 - 7:26am

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Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

As scientists continue to study potential therapeutic uses for psychedelics — and a few states have decriminalized them for recreational use, some Native Americans are worried about their use. And it’s not just the peyote cactus that has some communities concerned — it’s also home grown and synthetic versions. Not to mention the ceremonies connected to the plant that could become the subject of patents by pharmaceutical companies.

Annette McGivney has written about this in the Guardian. She's a freelance author and journalist based in Colorado.

She spoke with The Show about her reporting and began the conversation with how big of a fight there is brewing between the sacred, ceremonial use of peyote and the non-tribal medicinal and recreational use.

Peyote cactus plant
Getty Images
Peyote cactus plant

How big of a fight is there brewing between the sacred ceremonial use of peyote and the non tribal medicinal and recreational use?

ANNETTE MCGIVNEY: Yeah, I'd say in the non-native population, there's two distinct groups when it comes to psychedelics and one is the pharmaceutical industry and companies and entrepreneurs that are looking to monetize synthetic versions or non-synthetic versions for pharmaceutical drug development. And then there is another population of people, who are more like earthy grassroots activists, who wanna decriminalize peyote and other things like psychedelic mushrooms and ayahuasca to have access to those plants in a natural way and to not have them be illegal.  So there's two different polls coming at Native American populations who have been using peyote, and the psychoactive element in peyote is mescaline and they've been using it in a very spiritual way only.

What have you heard from folks, who are either trying to use the natural plant or grow it, about the concerns that Native Americans have about the sort of expanded use (lab grown peyote) of it?

MCGIVNEY: Well, I visited with the two camps of people. One is, you know, the plant medicine activists and then the pharmaceutical entrepreneurs, so the plant medicine activists had two different responses. One was they were totally oblivious to the Native American worldview and why it would not be OK with them for someone to just grow a peyote cactus in their home greenhouse. They had no idea or they were coming up with their own justification saying, “Well, it's not interfering with Native American spirituality because we're growing the cactus ourselves. So we're not taking it away from its natural habitat.” And they kind of come up with their own justification, ignoring what Native Americans were actually saying, that that was a problem.

And then the pharmaceutical industry has their own justifications about why they're not infringing on Native American spirituality, which is they're using synthetic mescaline. So they're creating chemical compounds in a lab that clone the cactus, the psychoactive substance. So they're saying that's OK because we're not actually using the cactus, but for Native Americans and their worldview around interconnectedness and respecting the sovereignty of plants as well as humans. They say it's not OK to clone our sacred cactus.

What do Native Americans say that they can or should be doing about this? Is there anything that they feel that they can do to try to reduce maybe the amount of other people who are using this?

MCGIVNEY: Well, for the Navajo peyote practitioners that I talked to, who are quite numerous, as well as a nonprofit organization, the Native American Church of North America. They don't want the pharmaceutical industry to be monetizing peyote or mescaline in any form, synthetic or natural. And they don't want the plant to be decriminalized and they want the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendment which allows only Native Americans to use peyote to be enforced. There is no compromise around peyote for native peyote practitioners. They want the law to be enforced, which is that only Native Americans can use peyote.

Is it possible to maybe rollback some of the efforts that have led to more people using this?

MCGIVNEY: Yeah, I think, what the Native American Church of North America and other groups I visited with are just wanting to stop, wanting to plug the hole in the dam and keep any more decriminalization efforts from moving forward. You're right in Arizona, the study of psilocybin mushrooms has been legalized and that's going on and that will lead to probably other psychedelics being studied and then eventually decriminalized. And so, in Colorado, the use of mescaline for study has been decriminalized. And so they can't really stop it, I guess, and roll things back.

But they're trying to raise awareness to prevent any more laws from being passed around the decriminalization of mescaline. 

If, as you say, there's no compromise on this issue among Native American tribal community members and there clearly is a desire among non-Native Americans to study this kind of thing or use this kind of thing, how do you see this all playing out?

MCGIVNEY: Well, I think there are other options besides mescaline and peyote, there is psilocybin mushrooms, there is MDMA, the synthetic psychedelic, there's LSD, there's ayahuasca.

So there's other options and, and the Native Americans say, you know, MDMA and psilocybin have already been clinically proven they're being studied right now. They're much farther along in the treatment of PTSD and addiction. Can't you just use that? Like, do you have to have it all? Do you have to have mescaline too? Can't you leave mescaline for us and use everything else?

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