Some Native American peoples traditionally used hallucinogens, notably the mescaline-bearing peyote cactus, for ritual purposes. Staring in the 1880s, a specific version of ritual peyote use has spread widely among Native Americans, including many from tribes without hallucinogen traditions of their own. While peyote use long predates the introduction of Christianity to the New World, today’s peyote rituals are essentially Christian. The Native American Church (not a single organization, but a collection of local bodies with somewhat different practices) now claims 250,000 members. After a long political and legal struggle, federal regulations were changed to exempt Native American ritual peyote use from the drug laws in 1965; the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 codified that exepmtion and made it binding on the states.
In recent years, freedom of exercise for the peyote religion has been largely uncontroversial. Even drug war hawks supported AIRFAA, and the Drug Enforcement Administration offered no opposition and has stressed its good working relationships with the NAC. The House Committee report on AIRFAA bill asserts what has become the conventional wisdom on the topic:
Medical evidence, based on scientific studies and. opinions of scientific and other experts, including medical doctors, former directors of the Indian Health Service and Enthropologists, clearly demonstrates peyote is not injurious to the Indian religious user, and, in fact, is often helpful in controlling alcoholism and alcohol abuse among Indian people.
In that context, the last two paragraphs of this otherwise unremarkable Philadelphia Inqurer article about peyote use among the Huichol of Mexico are rather chilling. After citing a scientist who is studying ritual peyote users and finding no health damage, the story continues:
Others, such as David Murray of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, see more serious risk. Working among the Navajo, he said, he found long-term peyote use was “counterproductive to education and social mobility.”
Because the peyote comes from a natural plant, he said, “you’re taking in a powerful chemical stew,” with some toxins in addition to the psychoactive ingredient. “It is, without question, a risky undertaking.”
It seems unlikely that Murray, a close adviser to John Walters, would talk that way for publication without clearing it. Is this a trial balloon for a policy change? If Murray, an anthropologist, has any research to back up his claims, we’d all like to see it.