In the high desert environs of Kearny, Arizona, Leo Mercado, his wife Raven and five-year-old son Moses gave thanks for autumn’s blessings in their rustic home shaded by cottonwood trees.
Moses was excitedly talking about the Dalai Lama. He and his parents had been among a throng who greeted the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader at a speaking engagement. Out of thousands of people in the crowd, the Tibetan hero zeroed in on Moses, held him and blessed him.
But while Leo, Moses and Raven talked of good karma and blessings, a group of 18 armed men were creeping onto the grounds of the family’s cottonwood-tree shaded homestead on the west side of the Gila River. Suddenly, the men smashed their way into the house, pointing machine guns at the terrified family.
“They were wearing masks that looked like monsters,” Moses Mercado told me when I visited the family recently. “They pointed guns at dad’s head, and grabbed me out of [my mother’s]arms.”
The armed men were not ordinary home invaders, however. They were law enforcement officers executing a search warrant which was based on questionable “testimony” from a mysterious “confidential informant.” The warrant indicated that the officers hoped to find a major marijuana cultivation operation. Instead, they found a devoutly-religious family, folk art, and a bunch of cactus plants.
“All but one of the officers apologized to us,” recalls Leo Mercado. “They went out to our greenhouse and came back saying: ‘Your peyote is beautiful. This raid was a mistake.'”
More at stake than Peyote
Mistake or not, Raven and Leo were charged with child endangerment and possession of peyote. Officers confiscated nearly 1,000 plants; Leo and Raven were imprisoned in what Leo describes as a “dungeon of a jail.”
Mercado, a trained horticulturalist, musician, artisan and community activist who has studied the entheogenic and spiritual use of peyote for nearly two decades, had believed his cultivation and use of peyote was protected by the US Constitution’s “guarantee” of religious freedom and Arizona statutes which state that “sincere religious intent” is an affirmative defence against prosecution for possession of peyote.
If Mercado had resided in Canada, his peyote would have been totally legal, as peyote is specifically exempted from Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But Mercado was in Arizona, not Canada, and the Arizona government had instigated a serious bid to rob his religious freedom. There was more than peyote at stake: the family he loved, the statuesque saguaro growing in yellow flowers at the back of his property, the chopping of wood next to the golden-hued Gila River ? these too would be taken from Mercado if the government had its way.
The Peyote Foundation
Mercado struck back by beginning a well-publicized hunger strike. International protests, along with irregularities in the search warrant affidavit and questionable arrest procedures, convinced a prudent county prosecutor to suddenly return all Mercado’s plants. Although nearly half the plants had died in custody, Mercado rescued many of them, which now grow in two greenhouses alongside hundreds of cacti donated to Mercado (or painstakingly grown from seed) since the 1995 debacle.
Mercado and other peyotists later founded the Peyote Foundation, which produces The Peyote Awareness Journal, conducts peyote ceremonies, operates a fascinating Web site (www.win.net/peyote) and acts as an advocacy/educational organization.
Although Mercado and his wife are sustained by people who love them and who see peyote as a healing plant which leads to increased health, self-awareness, and spirituality, the family and the Foundation are
still being persecuted.
Holy Man in the Crossfire
Last year, a large “grandfather” peyote ceremonially carried by Mercado in a medicine bag was taken from him by local officials. Mercado had already filed suit against Pinal County, other government agencies, and individual officials, alleging that the 1995 arrest violated his civil and religious
liberties, harmed his family, and robbed him of due process.
Mercado is also fighting for return of the grandfather peyote, and has squared off against a new county attorney who says he disagrees with his predecessor’s decision to return the cacti seized in 1995. A letter sent to Mercado by the new official warns that “any continued possession of peyote must be at your own peril, and the State of Arizona reserves the right to challenge your possession or sale in a criminal prosecution.”
Mercado ? a lithe, soft-spoken but impassioned father, husband, shaman, botanist and civil libertarian ? is frequently and accurately described as a holy man caught in the crossfire of drug war ignorance.
“Peyote is from the Creator,” he says sincerely, without a hint of fear or NewAgespeak. “I’ll do whatever I can to ensure its survival. As long as our intentions are honourable, we will be victorious over persecution.”
Still, I hear a note of sadness in his voice. The battle is wearing him down, sapping his joy. How long, I wondered as I watched Mercado and his wife sing hauntingly beautiful songs for a crowd of peyote enthusiasts, will this family and Foundation be allowed to exist?
More Sacred than Cannabis
Several months before I met Mercado, a friend of mine, who lives with his wife and 30 marijuana plants, told me he had something “even more sacred than cannabis” growing in his grow room.
I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the well-hidden back room in which a super-efficient metal halide grow light glowed over a green circle of well-tended
Big Bud/Afghani clones.
“I’m not sure we’re supposed to be growing these together,” he said, pointing to his cannabis and the small, squat blue cacti growing nearby. “The road chief who gave these to me said they were sacred, that I had to be careful not to dishonour the medicine.”
Although I had heard of peyote, and was intrigued by the cute, buttony fuzziness of the cacti, most of which were less than two inches in diameter and had intricate spiral designs on their tips, I was puzzled by my friend’s statements. Road chief? Dishonouring the medicine? Had my friend fallen into a new New Age religion?
As it turns out, my friend had discovered an old aged religion. Mercado’s website and his publications, along with books by anthropologists, entheogenicists and other researchers, prove that peyote has been a key element of earth-based religions originating as much as 10,000 years ago in what is now called North and South America.
Huichol and Aztec Indians engaged in ceremonial peyote ingestion for centuries before European explorers arrived in what is now called Mexico. In the 1800’s, peyote use spread north into United States. American Plains Indians carried peyote rituals to the Great Basin and southern Canada. Peyote “churches”, combining Christianity and peyotism, began to be known in the early 1900’s as the “Native American Church.” In 1954, the “Native American Church of Canada” was formed.
Today, precise membership criteria and organizational information regarding the Native American Church (NAC) is confusing and difficult to determine, but reliable sources estimate that as many as 300,000 people in the US, Canada, and Mexico consider themselves members.
My friend, who is not Native American, claims to have a direct link to the NAC. He studies its rituals and history. He recently acquired a sacred “water drum” kit, useful in peyote ceremonies. “The plant is guiding me,” he says. “It teaches me what I need to be and know.”
Mexico’s Huichol Indians are a living remnant of ancient peyote practitioners; they provide spiritual and anthropological guidance for people like Mercado who today ingest peyote for religious purposes. The tribe, whose estimated 20,000 members live in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental in the states of Nyarit and Zacatecas, still practices traditional peyote pilgrimages to their sacred land of “Wirikuta”, a peyote-growing region near San Luis Potosi, where they gather cactus for use in ceremonies designed to ensure rain, food and spiritual health.
Unfortunately, persecution of Huichols and other peyote-using tribes, which began with the arrival of Europeans in Mexico, is being continued by the current Mexican government. On March 18, 1998, a group of Huichols returning from pilgrimage were arrested for peyote possession by Mexico’s 51st Paramilitary Battalion, commanded by Jesus Ugel de Campos.
Mercado, who has visited the Huichol in Mexico, notes that the Indians also face other threats, including cultural and environmental sabotage.
“These people are artists and visionaries,” Mercado says, pointing to vividly-coloured, exquisitely-wrought Huichol art which decorates Peyote Foundation buildings. “The governor of San Luis Potosi signed a decree protecting peyote and the Huichol in 1994. The Mexican government is a party to national and international agreements which protect the Huichol’s right to practice their religion. They’re stomping on these peoples’ rights.”
Freedom of Religion?
Mexico stomps people who use plants as sacrament and medicine, but so does the United States, where the right to practice religions involving ritual peyote use is limited by complex and contradictory laws.
Like marijuana, peyote was demonized and legislated against in the United States beginning in the early 1900’s. Laws against peyote, however, have consistently been declared unconstitutional; numerous courts have overturned or chipped away at them, based on rulings that regulating peyote burdens religious expression.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (and a 1994 amendment to it), seem to guarantee religious peyote use for “bona fide” members of Indian tribes. A 1997 Supreme Court decision removed some of these protections, but NAC members in the US military were later given the right to ingest peyote without running afoul of military regulations. Yet the bottom line is that any American using peyote has to worry about being arrested for it.
It’s obvious that peyote arrests are a form of cultural imperialism, not just typical drug war stupidity. In an official written response to Mercado’s lawsuit against Pinal County, for example, government representatives denied that Huichol use of peyote has occurred for centuries, denied that Mercado has deeply-held religious beliefs and practices, even denied that Mercado is Mexican-American.
“I wonder,” muses Mercado, “if the countgovernment has hired genealogists, anthropologists, psychologists and theologians to determine whether I am religious or not. A person’s views about the Creator are profoundly personal, but the government thinks it can determine who is and isn’t practicing religion. It thinks it can rewrite history. It thinks it has the right to decide who can be religious, and which religions are acceptable. I would just like to be left alone to practice my religion. I just want to be left alone to pray. Am I a criminal for asking that?”
Not a Recreational Drug
On Friday, March 13, before the Vernal Equinox, I sat in a tipi with Mercado, his family, and a dozen other people, listening to seven-year-old Moses Mercado sing peyote chants in the voice of an old man, in the voice of Huichols. He shook a rattle in time with the tranced rhythm of a water drum. An eerie ceremonial fire flickered in the middle of the tipi. I understood viscerally why people for centuries have used ritual, music and psychoactive plants to access gods.
In an earlier part of the peyote ceremony, which is modelled after NAC ceremonies, I was asked to tell why I was in the tipi.
I confessed that my motivation was journalistic; how could I write about peyote if I had not eaten it? Further, I admire people like Mercado, Dennis Peron and Marc Emery ? people who defy unjust laws and imperil themselves by doing so. I like to write about my heroes: everybody should know that one person’s courage and commitment can change the world.
I also wanted to understand how a cute little cactus could hold power over so many people. Around me were professional photographers, bankers, psychotherapists, artists, musicians, blue-collar workers, an international audience of achievers, seekers and sages. Several of the people whose expectant faces glowed in the fire around me had travelled thousands of miles to eat peyote with Leo and Raven.
But it wasn’t a “good high” that these people were looking for. Peyote isn’t something you do on a Friday night when you’re bored or stressed out.
“It’s definitely not a recreational drug,” Mercado told me several hours before the ceremony began. “It’s not a drug people can abuse. Prayer doesn’t have much potential for abuse. I don’t like eating peyote. I don’t like the taste or the vomiting, but I like the contact with God. I like the visions. I like the medicine.”
Mercado and other peyotists also like the ceremonial rituals which accompany peyote ingestion. NAC rituals originated in the 1800’s, combining rural Christian church practices with Native American and other indigenous forms. The ceremony has evolved since then, but remains remarkably similar to those documented last century by ethnographers.
Ceremonial rules govern when and how to enter tipis, seating arrangements, firepit placement and shape, who can publicly pray, make music and perform official services (such as bringing in firewood), when and how food and water are provided, use of tobacco and other herbs, even when people may leave the tipi for bathroom breaks.
I deeply respect the traditions which guide peyote ceremonies, but would rather have ingested the cactus by myself in a desert canyon. Having to worry about other people and unfamiliar rules, along with being unable to move around freely, made me feel nervous and insecure.
Mercado says the ceremonial forms are “symbols and metaphors designed to make us pay attention to peyote and the moment.” Forms also “provide a cleansing, transformative experience uniting participants in bonds of caring friendship.” People who submit to ceremonial strictures, he says, find that peyote rituals provide passage to shamanic realms of magic, self-awareness, and love.
Paralyzed, Dizzy and Afraid
I entered magical realms that night, but not ones I was prepared to handle. I had never eaten peyote before. Five different preparations of peyote were passed clockwise to me around the earthen firebird molded into the tipi’s sandy floor. Dried peyote, fresh peyote, raw peyote powder, capsulized peyote powder, and peyote tea: I took a little of each, but not little enough. The taste ? indescribably bitter ? should have warned me.
Within two hours of ingesting several capsules, two cups of tea, a spoonful of powder and three fresh buttons, I crawled out of the tipi feeling poisoned. I was paralyzed, dizzy and afraid. I barely made it to my bed. Later, somebody shared medicinal herb that calmed my nausea and unspun my head.
Six hours after I left the ceremony, a friend carried me back into the tipi, where I collapsed like a bag of dust on the floor. I later learned that everybody else had stayed inside all night ? singing songs, praying, eating more peyote.
A Strong, Resilient Plant
Peyote is a hardy, widely-distributed plant; its natural growing range extends from the Rio Grande and western regions of Texas southward into Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert and Tamaulipan Thorn Forest. Peyote prefers a warm temperate desert, fertile but sandy soil, and moderate temperatures, but can survive the harshest conditions. Afficionados cultivate it indoors and outdoors in almost every part of the world, including Europe and Canada. It can thrive in greenhouses, grow rooms, shade, or full sun.
The plant’s resilient tenacity makes it a potent medicine. Researchers have attributed antibiotic and other medicinal qualities to the plant; religious users appreciate the natural mescaline, a powerful psychotropic alkaloid, which is the plant’s main neuroactive ingredient.
In talking to other peyotists, I learned that peyote’s effects often begin with disorientation, nausea or vomiting, but later become energizing, hallucinogenic, transcendental. Mercado explained my unsettling peyote experience by noting that “this cactus has an incredible life force which goes deep inside you on a cellular level and clears you out.”
“Peyote is such a strong plant,” he said. “You can cut a button of it from a larger plant or from its root in the ground, leave that button on a shelf without sunlight, soil or water for a year, and then plant or graft it and it’ll plump right up and start growing again.”
Seeds and Cuttings
Growing peyote from seed is a long, subtle process; most growers prefer to plant or graft “buttons”, which are top cuttings from already-growing peyote. Planting peyote in soil is relatively simple. Grafting is less simple, but worth the trouble; peyote grafted onto columnar cactus varieties (such as San Pedro), grows faster than rooted peyote, and often produces clusters of potent buttons.
Procuring peyote buttons or seeds can be difficult, and growing peyote for ritual use is a religious, slow-motion process. Government eradication efforts, overharvesting by licensed Texas peyote dealers supplying the NAC, along with development and agricultural enterprises which are destroying thousands of acres per year of prime peyote habitat, have caused a peyote shortage.
Peyote, the Revealer
My pot/peyote friend has never met or corresponded with Mercado, but he shares Mercado’s love for the plant and its powers. He says his grafted and rooted peyote is thriving in its location on the outskirts of the lightfall in his grow room. He notes that peyote is a “low maintenance crop,” requiring little of the watering, pest control, trimming and other attention necessary to successful marijuana cultivation.
“Pot and peyote are not alike,” he asserts. “Herb makes you feel mellow, but peyote is a revealer. Your relationship with peyote is on a higher level. It challenges you, makes you want to be worthy of it.”
I can’t fully understand or embrace peyote religion, or any religion for that matter. But I embrace the evidence of my own peyote experience and my time at the Foundation.
“Grandfather is always within me”
I left the desert weeks ago, but am haunted by a memory of Leo and Raven kneeling in front of the Pinal County Courthouse dressed in vibrant Huichol clothing, smoking ceremonial tobacco, praying that the county attorney stop attacking peyote and people who love it.
Behind the praying couple, wearing a beaded Huichol necklace, is sturdy Moses, standing guard for his mother and father, humming ancient peyote songs.
An evil wind whips across the land-raped Phoenixized desolation, diffusing Leo’s sacred smoke, ruffling Raven’s hair, and whistling into the ravaged prison town to which the Mercados had been summoned. Leo stood up, steeling himself for a hostile day-long interrogation by government minions. He was calm as we hugged good-bye, but his face looked unusual, almost comically distorted.
“Your cheek is puffed out,” I told him.
“You’re right,” he replied, opening his mouth wide to show me that he was chewing on a peyote button. “Just makin’ sure grandfather is always within me.”
Legal Peyote in Canada
Peyote is completely legal in Canada, as it has always been. Peyote (Lophophora) is specifically excluded from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, as it was from the old Narcotic Control Act. However, mescaline, the main psychoactive ingredient in peyote, is banned as a Schedule 2 drug.
This disparity came about in the mid 70’s, when Canada was about to sign the international “Convention on Psychotropic Substances”. That convention insisted that mescaline be “controlled”, and the easiest way to do that would be to ban peyote.
Although peyote does not grow naturally in Canada, native tribes in Alberta and Saskatchewan had been importing peyote buttons from Arizona and other arid locales in the American Southwest, and using them in peyote ceremonies, for at least a few hundred years. Some believe peyote has been imported into Canada for thousands of years. Federal officials were sympathetic to the peyotists’ plea not to ban their sacred plant, and so decided to only ban the extracted active ingredient, mescaline.
Internal government memos obtained by Cannabis Canada reveal that the bureaucrats considered banning peyote, but with a special exemption for religious users only. This was the route taken in the US, where only Native American members of the Native American Church are permitted peyote. However, the bureaucracy felt that this would create a legal precedent for religious use of other plants, like marijuana and mushrooms.
Strangely enough, our government’s policy towards peyote is exactly opposite to its marijuana policy. If the peyote policy were adopted towards marijuana, it would mean that organic marijuana could be freely grown, while Nabilone, Marinol, and other synthetic THC preparations would be banned drugs.
? Dana Larsen
Peyote can be grown from seed or from cuttings, which are called buttons. If you have a peyote button which has been removed from the soil with its long, turnip-like root intact, plant it so that the bottom of the button is flush with the surface of the soil.
If the button has been cut off a larger cactus, or removed from the soil without the root, it should be placed firmly in soil with the button’s “stub” below the surface, and the wrinkled, rounded button top above. Mercado’s special soil mix consists primarily of desert sand, coarse vermiculite, and perlite. The mixture also contains small amounts of greensand (glauconite), soft rock phosphate, kelp meal, and bat guano.
Grafting onto a columnar cactus such as San Pedro will dramatically speed the growth of the peyote button. This technique requires that you first cut the top 1/4 inch of the columnar cactus. Then you make 1/2 inch bevels in the columnar’s side ridges.
Cut another 1/4 inch slice off the top, and quickly place a freshly-cut or pre-cut button directly onto the raw horizontal area at the top of the San Pedro. Secure the graft with a loose rubber band. The button will eventually bond with the exposed columnar tissue. After this happens, remove the rubber band.
Growing peyote is an art and a science. Mercade recommends that you purchase a cultivation guide, such as Adam Gottlieb’s “Peyote and Other Psychoactive Cacti”.
Leo Mercado and his family welcome your assistance, inquiries and prayers. The Peyote Foundation can be reached by mail at: TPF, PO Box 778, Kearny, AZ; email: [email protected]; website www.win.net/peyote