Peyote vendors specialize in 'flesh of God'
By JEREMY ROEBUCK / The Monitor
Article Launched: 07/09/2008 08:32:07 AM MDT
McALLEN, Texas -- A sign in front of Mauro Morales' Rio Grande City home announces his business for everyone to see. "Peyote Dealer," it proclaims in large block letters.
Each day, drivers passing by slow down for double takes and some even pull over, get out and snap photos.
Who can blame them, Morales asks with a mischievous grin.
He is, after all, part of a dwindling fraternity.
The slight, 65-year-old Rio Grande City man is one of only three people in the United States -- all in Starr and Webb counties -- authorized to harvest and sell the psychedelic cactus.
But as overharvesting continues to threaten peyote's growth range in Starr County, he may not have much of a business for long -- and Native Americans may lose their access to a substance that drives their religion.
"It used to be you'd go out for a couple of hours and you'd find 500 to 1,000 plants," he said. "Now, you go out for six hours and you don't come back with much."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lists peyote as a Schedule I controlled substance, putting it in the same legal category as crack and heroin. The mescaline that each cactus -- or button -- produces can induce vivid hallucinations that last for days.
But for 250,000 members of the Native American Church the plant is sacred. Calling it "the flesh of God," they believe the green bulbs contain medicinal properties.
Federal law authorizes limited use for church members only.
The problem for most tribes, however, is that peyote only grows naturally in four counties in the United States -- all in South Texas and all miles away from the nearest reservation.
So peyoteros like Morales must fill the gaps, though under close watch.
The Texas Department of Public Safety and the DEA keep strict tabs on his work, authorizing sales to Native Americans but prohibiting him from ingesting it himself.
A diminutive man with a wily grin, Morales first got his start in the peyote business in the 1960s.
Tough economic times drove him to any work he could get, and at the time that meant following his family to the peyote fields of Mirando City, a small town just east of Laredo.
Back then, more than 25 authorized dealers roamed the gardens there. Most enjoyed open access to hunt for buttons on the relatively worthless private lands that surrounded the city.
In the years since, however, South Texas property owners have realized there is profit in leasing their land as oil or hunting preserves. Suddenly, the small pittances peyoteros could pay for access didn't seem worth it.
"Now, it's getting to where the ranchers don't want to give permission for us to look on their land," he said. "You have to keep going back to the same patches and waiting for it to grow again."
This presents a conundrum. If Morales and his colleagues keep revisiting the same patches, the cactus doesn't have enough time to re-grow.
Repeated overharvesting also affects the potency of the plant, said Martin Terry, an assistant professor of biology at Sul Ross University in Alpine.
"If the demand continues to increase -- even slowly -- and the supply continues to decrease, then the amount available to the church will just keep continuing to decrease," he said.
Terry, one of the nation's leading experts on peyote conservation, has tracked the decline in available peyote over the past decade.
While he maintains that the species itself is not endangered, populations accessible to peyoteros and their customers have dwindled dramatically.
Peyote sales -- measured in buttons sold -- have dipped from 2.3 million buttons a decade ago to 1.6 million last year, according to state statistics.
"If you look at the amount of money they've made, the numbers have kept going up," Terry said. "They are charging more for a more limited supply."
But while Morales and Mirando City-based peyote dealer Salvador Johnson expressed concern over the decline, their customers don't seem to fear a thing.
"They believe the dealers don't decide when to harvest and how much to harvest," Johnson said. "God decides when, where and how much."
Johnson, a tanned, 62-year-old with a neatly trimmed white mustache, may know more about his product than anyone else in the country.
While Morales prefers to let his customers figure out how to use the cactus, Johnson -- a staunch Southern Baptist -- undertook his own quest to figure out what he was selling and why.
As federal laws made peyote use illegal for all but a few Americans in the '70s, and landowners began to take a dim view of those hoping to scour their property for the elusive plants, he started to ask questions.
"I needed to find out for myself what this is all about," he said. "That's when I went up north and started taking the sacrament."
Over the next several years, he visited nearly every Native American group that uses peyote in its ceremonies. He consumed the cactus dozens of times. The experience wasn't as easily euphoric as one might expect, he said.
"The peyote ain't going to do anything. It's what you expect from it," he said. "The belief that you put into something mentally -- that's what makes you trip."
That same faith in the cactus' spiritual properties is what makes his customers believe it will always grow.
"Their belief is that there will always be peyote," he said. "Mother Nature put it there, so it will always be there."
Terry is convinced a more pragmatic approach is necessary, though.
Native American Church members must plan now to meet their growing demand for the cactus, he said.
Many of the available solutions prove problematic, however.
The peyoteros could push for legalizing importation of the cactus from Mexico, which contains 90 percent of the plant's natural growth range.
"But there's no way in the world Mexico is going to allow exportation of peyote with the U.S. breathing down their necks on drugs," he said. "Plus, they have their own native populations that use the cactus."
Suggestions to allow greenhouse cultivation of the plant on Native American reservations don't pass muster either. Church members believe the plant gains its spiritual properties only when it grows naturally.
The solutions are tricky, but ultimately necessary, Terry said.
"How can you have a peyote-based religion without peyote?" he said. "It's kind of like substituting Kool-Aid for wine in a Christian Church."