A Trip Down Peyote Way

This Southern Arizona church flouts federal law by offering peyote to all--for a price

Dust devils are swirling on the distant horizon as photographer Hugh Dougherty and I bump down a dirt road near Klondike in an open-air Jeep. We're potentially lost, looking for the Peyote Way Church of God, in a desolate landscape where you're more likely to meet a cow than a person.

When we've gone farther than we should have according to our directions, we wave down a passing pickup truck, the first vehicle we'd seen in about half an hour.

The driver is the sort of person you would expect to find behind the wheel, a quintessentially tawny rancher topped in a white straw hat. He squints like Clint Eastwood as he sizes us up.

"Just up the road a bit. Make a left at the red mail box with "Mana" painted on the side," he says. Then, shifting conversational gears, he eases into a request: "Say, would you fellas mind doing me a favor? Would you drop off this dog when you get up there? His name's Red, and he lives up that way. He's a good ol' hound."

Red pokes his head over the back of the pickup. He's crusty-looking, with burrs in his coat and a huge, fossilized turd improbably adhered to his belly.

A couple of miles later, Dougherty, Red and I find the turnoff. At a dry wash crossing before the main gate, we let Red out and he hobbles off, favoring his right hind leg.

The entrance to the Peyote Way Church property is a simple wire affair more suitable for keeping out cattle than humans. On one side of the fence is an elaborate tile mosaic featuring images of peyote plants, the church's name, visitor information and a government-issued Internal Revenue Service tax identification number--in case a visiting auditor should question its legitimacy.

Just beyond the gate, in a field of undulating grass, a Mercedes-Benz gleams in the sunlight.

At the heart of the compound are a couple of tumble-down buildings and a few cars that appear to be permanently parked. Architecturally, it's a mix of hippie commune and survivalist-compound paranoia, with a splash of Green Acres chic.

But what is most striking is that there is no real "church" to speak of. If a church by definition is a place of worship, then the actual "church" would be a toss up between the simple gardening shack in which hundreds of peyote plants reside and the 160 acres of spectacular, rolling grassland that surrounds it all near Willcox.

Shaking off the road dust, we're greeted by a bevy of sage-looking dogs. In their wake is Peyote Way Church Apostle Reverend Anne Zapf. Zapf is a lean woman in her early 50s who wears her graying hair pulled tightly back. She greets us with a warm, yet suspiciously tolerant smile.

"Come on," she says, cutting to the chase after a brief introduction, "I'll show you the peyote."

Inside a shed known as the Peyote House, every bit of available space on the floor--and even a wall--is covered with earth-filled boxes. Within these boxes, a miniature city of plump, sea-green and spineless peyote cactus-buttons thrives.

As one of the Americas' slowest-growing desert plants, a peyote cactus can take upward of 13 years to reach maturity. Collectively, there are probably more than 1,000 years of plant growth under this single roof.

"That one there," Zapf says, pointing to a gnarled-looking plant towering above the others, maybe 6 inches tall and 5 inches wide, with the sad remains of a recent flower bloom drooping over the side. "That one could be well over 100 years old."

When harvested properly, the above-ground portion of the plant (commonly called a "button") is removed, allowing the deep root to produce a new button in roughly five years.

As far as archeologists can tell, peyote, which grows naturally in north-central Mexico and a small part of southwestern Texas, was harvested and consumed by native people in these regions for thousands of years in ceremonies that strengthened communities and promoted a spiritual connection to the land.

Because the cactus' chemistry is a mixed bag of sense-altering alkaloids, a peyote trip is said to include visions, hallucinations, the "hearing" of colors, the "seeing" of sounds, and an overall perception of inner peace and connection to the Earth. Most people also vomit shortly before everything kicks in.

Although a skeptic by nature and nurture, when viewing these plants, I am surprised to feel a sudden dizzying rush of adrenaline.

Maybe it's the mystic energy of the plants I had heard so much about, or perhaps it's simply the knowledge that the room is full of a federally controlled narcotic that could put someone away for life under the right circumstances. Either way, it's a powerful feeling.

Under federal law, peyote is listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic, which puts it right up there with heroin. Depending on the amount and circumstances, to possess or possess with the intent to sell peyote can carry a maximum fine of $4 million and a jail sentence that can range anywhere from 20 years to life.

However, if you are a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe, you are exempt--as long as everything is kept among tribal members.

By far, the vast majority of the known peyotists in the United States, roughly a quarter-million, are members of the Native American Church, an organization that incorporates peyote use with indigenous and Christian beliefs.

Zapf, who is neither a Native American nor affiliated with a federally recognized tribe, is essentially growing and distributing peyote illegally, at least as far as the Drug Enforcement Agency is concerned.

"Frankly speaking, we have not come across any peyote seizures for several years (in Southern Arizona)," says DEA Public Information Officer Ramona Sanchez. "It is a controlled substance and is of course on our radar, but we have not seen an alarming use of it. We have a trusting relationship with the Native American Church (that peyote will not be abused). As far as the DEA is concerned, there is a list of all the tribes which can use peyote, and you must be of American Indian heritage with federally recognized criteria to possess and use peyote."

Sanchez says the Peyote Way Church, which advertises a stated mission of sharing peyote with people of all races in its literature and on its Web site ( peyoteway.org ), could be shut down by the DEA.

However, the issue of who can legally use and grow peyote in Arizona is clouded by state law, which conflicts with federal law.

Under Arizona Revised Statute Title 13-3402: "A person who knowingly possesses, sells, transfers or offers to sell or transfer peyote is guilty of a class 6 felony. In a prosecution for violation of this section, it is a defense that the peyote is being used or is intended for use: In connection with the bona fide practice of a religious belief, and; As an integral part of a religious exercise, and; In a manner not dangerous to public health, safety or morals."

In other words, if it can be proven that the peyote is grown and used for religious or spiritual purposes (a notarized public document could constitute proof), then you are pretty much on safe ground, as far as the state is concerned.

"(In Arizona), it is a class 6 felony, which is the lowest level of felony," says Pima County Deputy Attorney Tom Rankin. "Lower than marijuana. Lower than the narcotic and dangerous drugs. And we do have a specific clause in our statute that if a defendant can establish all those things (in the statute) ... it is a defense to the prosecution.

"I would estimate that we see maybe one or two cases a year involving peyote. But mostly they are prosecuted by the federal authorities. The last one I remember was about a year ago, where an individual had a whole suitcase full of drugs: marijuana, cocaine and some other drugs. This person also had a baggie of about 14 peyote buttons. I do not think he was a tribal member or a member of a church. He just had a whole potpourri of drugs that he was selling. It happens infrequently that our office prosecutes those cases."

Taking advantage of Arizona law, the Peyote Way Church may be the only all-race peyote organization operating so openly in the United States.

Becoming a member of the Peyote Way Church, which has an almost entirely non-Native American membership, is relatively simple. The only requirements are that you be older than 18 and agree to pay a $50 membership fee, which is renewed annually for $40.

As a member, you receive a copy of the church bylaws (what to expect), a copy of the so-called Doomsday Revelation (why the world is going to hell in a bucket), a copy of the Revelation Concerning Entheogenic Sacraments (plants are your friends), a Declaration of Religious Conviction Certificate (eating peyote keeps you in touch with all that is holy) and a membership card (useful for identifying yourself to fellow church members and inquisitive police). You also get to spend three to seven consecutive days at the "church" each year.

According to Zapf, the church currently has 240 associate members and 12 clergy members.

In a building adjacent to the Peyote House is the Mana pottery studio, where church members create ceramic art decorated with peyote-inspired images. Zapf says her family relies on the profits derived from pottery sales. Mana pottery has purportedly wound up in the collections of Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Walton and the Smithsonian Institution Museum of the American Indian. Last year, Zapf estimates that pottery sales brought in roughly $36,000.

Seated at a table piled high with porcelain in a sea of chalky dust and old newspaper clips is the Peyote Way Church president, Rabbi Matthew Kent. Kent, who is also in his 50s and neither Native American nor a member of a recognized tribe, has the energy of a someone half his age as he eagerly talks about peyote and expansion of the church.

"The seminary program of the church is the part that has been most affected by the federal government," Kent explains. "If the federal law did not exist, we could grow this church. And we could have the clergy that is required to take the weight off of Annie (Zapf)."

As for the actual "religion," the Peyote Way Church Articles of Faith are mostly a hodge-podge of ideas that include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Word of Wisdom for clean living, the spiritual and healing beliefs attributed to peyote by indigenous people and a fundamental insistence that peyote is for everyone, regardless of their ethnic background or tribal affiliation.

In the end, Kent says, the church leaves religious beliefs up to the members. If you want to visit the church, take peyote and spend your time reading comic books, that's fine by him. But be warned--those who think of it as another opportunity to get high may be in for a surprise.

"If you think you are going ingest peyote and get high, fine," Kent says. "But you're soon going to find out it's not like that. Peyote is not recreational. Its re-creation-al. You reformat your experiences in the world. You know with every cell of your body that there is a lot more than three dimensions out there. I can tell you from 27 years of experience that it is not addictive. Sure, someone can argue, 'If it's not addictive, then why do people keep coming back?' Well, it's not addictive just like prayer is not addictive."

In Edward Anderson's definitive book on the plant, Peyote: The Divine Cactus, published by the University of Arizona Press, he concluded that although peyote is listed as a controlled substance, it has more to do more with politics than the plant itself. This claim seems to be substantiated by Arizona's lenient law.

"Some people still contend that peyote is a narcotic despite statements to the contrary by experts with considerable knowledge of its physiological effect. Even early studies showed that peyote is not addicting," Anderson wrote. "The problem for lawmakers and scientists is one of deciding how best to classify and control the narcotics and other drugs used by humans."

A study by pharmacologist Maurice Seevers conducted in 1958 rated the addictive qualities of drugs in America. In that study, he placed alcohol at the top of the list with an addiction index factor of 21. By contrast, peyote ranked at the bottom of the list, with a rating of 1. (It would have been ranked "0," but some users described "developing a slight tolerance" after repeated use.)

"When people take peyote, even to party, they have a spiritual experience," says Zapf. "They'll say, 'Oh yeah, I was just partying and then I had this spiritual experience.' That's the way peyote is. It's a very powerful experience. You can't play with it."

Perhaps you wake up one morning and decide that today is the day you will become a peyotist. What next? It's not like you can head down to the Circle K for a quart of Budweiser and a bag of peyote.

If you are a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe, you are entitled to purchase your peyote from one of roughly a dozen federally licensed peyoteros who harvest the plants in Texas. A single button of peyote usually retails for less than a dollar.

If you are not Native American, one option is to grow your own. Peyote seeds are widely available on the Internet from a variety of places, mostly in Europe, that offer handy peyote starter kits and growing tips.

Since peyote takes more than a decade to come into its own, other options could include seeking out your neighborhood drug dealer or joining the Peyote Way Church and taking a three-day Spirit Walk for a so-called donation of $200.

While indigenous ceremonies in Mexico and the United States place an emphasis on communal gatherings often accompanied by ritual acts during the consumption of peyote, the Peyote Way Church prefers to dose up congregants and set them loose alone in a wilderness where temperatures can top 100 degrees, and venomous critters live side by side with thorn-studded plants.

Both Zapf and Kent say the church's choice of isolation is based on the tradition of the vision quest, in which a person will spend time alone in the wilderness seeking enlightenment.

To date, they claim there's never been an accident, aside from the occasional guest who realized--after drug kicked in--that they did not want to be on the drug. When that happens, Zapf and Kent say they are both available to comfort the person until they sober up.

Typically, the first day of the Spirit Walk is spent fasting--time well spent, considering the nausea and vomiting that usually occur. The second day is spent ingesting peyote brewed in tea or eaten whole as provided by the church. The third day is spent coming down and stopping by the gift shop for souvenirs before leaving.

Considering all of the talk about peyote being a doorway to enlightenment, paying $200 for the opportunity to touch the face of God can appear a bit unseemly. But despite appearances, both Kent and Zapf bristle at the notion that they have put a price on the sacred.

"How can you possibly put a price on peyote?" Kent asks, noting that someone who could not afford to pay was coincidentally preparing for a Spirit Walk as we spoke. "For $200, you will get space, place and counsel on church land. But just because you paid $200, it does not guarantee you the right to take peyote."

The Peyote Way Church Web site, however, makes no mention of anyone being rejected, stating: "Penitence, forgiveness of self and others, renewed confidence, desire for self improvement and improved health and a healthy attitude are all benefits of partaking of the Holy Sacrament Peyote. We are asking a $200 donation for this service."

The site also goes into great detail about what gear to bring while camping, how much water will be needed and what to expect when the peyote kicks in. They also offer the use of rooms for shelter during the fast if the elements get to be too much.

Kent and Zapf say they were leery of being interviewed for this article because of the interest it would generate. Currently, Kent estimated the church is at capacity, hosting roughly 50 spirit walks per year.

For this story, I was keen on experiencing peyote for myself. As a teenager growing up in New Jersey during the late '70s/ early '80s, taking LSD and going to a Grateful Dead concert was about as natural a combination as drinking a beer and watching the Mets. Today, those days are more memory than reality, but I was nonetheless looking forward to giving it a try, all in the name of journalistic inquiry.

Initially through e-mail correspondence and once over the phone, Zapf gave me the green light to visit the church and try some peyote. We had even agreed upon a date, when the issue of paying the "donation" came up.

"We want to discuss your visit some more," Zapf wrote via e-mail about a month before our scheduled visit. "Members are aware of and prepared to donate the $200 suggested donation for the Spirit Walk, but I am not sure of your expectations. We ask this money as this unconventional church does not have the ax of impending damnation and weekly services to pay for church needs. You haven't said much about it so I want to know what you want to do about that. Also, peyote is a very powerful sacrament and has left some communicants 'speechless' after their Spirit Walk. Speechless and exhausted. Perhaps the interview should be part of the tour and preparation discussions before the Spirit Walk. We feel that after a Spirit Walk, all the communicant should 'do' is take a shower and eat a meal. I am not saying that you will be speechless. Jon Safran, from the Australian TV network, though exhausted did interview a few folks, but he had a cadre of cameramen and (a) directorial woman. Think about it and get back to me."

Tucson Weekly Editor Jimmy Boegle said he was willing to pay the $50 necessary for me to become a member of the church and keep everything "legal," but drew the line at paying an additional $200 for the Spirit Walk. Boegle said that paying a fee for access to a story would violate basic journalism ethics.

Since a "donation" is certainly not a fee, I explained the conundrum to Zapf via e-mail and asked if the donation could be waived.

The following day, which coincidentally was April Fool's Day, Kent abruptly cancelled the interview and Spirit Walk via e-mail, stating, "We're not interested in being part of your story. If you have spiritual need for peyote feel free to make an appointment as an individual. As far as we're concerned, you are a member of the church, not the Tucson Weekly. We will serve you, not your editor. Your article isn't going to help the church, therefore your article has less than positive value to us. Thanks. Rabbi Matthew S. Kent."

Aside from Kent's confusion about my status as a member of the church, which I am not nor have ever been, the abrupt turnaround was baffling. The only logical conclusion I could deduce was that they wanted me to pay $200 for the Spirit Walk.

However, Kent eventually recanted his position on the interview (but held to his prohibition on the Spirit Walk), maintaining that money was never an issue.

According to the church financial statement posted on their Web site, last year's take was roughly $22,000 after expenses from a combination of memberships, Spirit Walks and donations.

"The land, although it was paid for by Mana Pottery sales and individual donations from immediate family, belongs to the Peyote Way Church of God, a nonprofit, 501-C3 organization," the Web site reads.

"We incorporated in (19)79. We pay our corporate taxes and they send those checks back when we over pay to the Peyote Way Church of God," says Kent. "We can be ruined by our success. That is why we started with the donation. It slowed down the demand. And it made people value what they were receiving. In this country, value is set by dollars and cents. If you don't set a value then people tend to think it is worthless. The funny thing is that once we started to ask for the Spirit Walk donation, we started getting lawyers, chiropractors, architects, software engineers. Professionals of all ages."

During the late 19th century, Native Americans were being systematically forced off their traditional homelands and taken to live on reservations, where the conditions often amounted to a death sentence.

Around this time, the Ghost Dance religion--believed to have involved peyote consumption--spread among the tribes of the American West. Those who subscribed to the religion danced all night around fires in the belief that it would make them invincible to the bullets of soldiers.

After a few skirmishes went horribly awry, the Ghost Dance religion disbanded, and many of the surviving leaders became so-called "road chiefs," who developed a new religion. This religion eventually became the Native American Church, a mix of native and Christian beliefs combined with peyote consumption.

The goal of this new religion was to recapture native spiritual practices in a nonviolent form and organize peyote use into group ritual, often involving the drinking of peyote tea during all-night ceremonies similar to what is practiced today by the Huichol people in Mexico.

In Peyote: The Divine Cactus, Anderson noted: "For those who were unable to adjust to European American culture, it became a solace because it was Native American--it had a tie to the past. It was something uniquely Native American, and European Americans could share the experience only by permission."

In 1948, Immanuel Pardeahtan Trujillo joined the Native American Church but objected to the practice of what he believed was racial exclusivity. Trujillo, the son of a French-American mother and a San Carlos Apache father, was raised by an adoptive family in New Jersey. Although Trujillo himself is 50 percent Native American, his children are only 25 percent.

According to Kent, Trujillo believed the peyote experience was too powerful to be restricted to any single group of people and he went on to become a founding member of a so-called "all-race group" within the Native American Church during the 1960s.

The Native American Church revoked the all-race group's charter a year later, and Trujillo decided to start his own church in 1966. Trujillo purchased the 160-acre Peaceful Valley Ranch in 1970, behind Mount Graham, which the Apaches consider sacred. In 1977, the Peyote Way Church was founded at the ranch by Trujillo, Zapf and Kent, for the specific purpose of "stewarding, ingesting, distributing and growing the holy sacrament peyote" as the "essential and inseparable" part of the members' religious beliefs.

With a mission that includes legalizing the religious use of peyote for all people and a $200 drug-induced religious experience, it's little wonder that the Native American Church is concerned about how the actions of the Peyote Way Church can impact their organization.

Native American Church and Indian Law Office attorney James Botsford of Wausau, Wis., says the current conservative political climate regarding drugs in America means his church is constantly fighting to keep peyote legal among Native Americans.

By trying to make peyote available to everyone, Botsford says, the Peyote Way Church makes the fight even more difficult and erodes Native American rights.

"In an ideal world, they are right," Botsford says. "Religious pursuit should be accepted, and people should be allowed to pursue what they believe in. But we do not live in an ideal world. It is a legitimate point philosophically, but by doing so (publicly making peyote available to everyone), they put the practice (of peyotism) at tremendous risk."

To highlight the sort of pressure the Native American Church is under, Botsford noted the case of the Employment Division of Oregon Vs. Smith, which involved two tribal members who were fired from their jobs for their religious use of peyote.

The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1990, and it was decided by a 6-3 margin that the First Amendment does not protect the sacramental use of peyote in religious ceremonies. Justice Anthony Scalia, writing for the majority, observed that the court has never held that an individual's religious beliefs can excuse him/her from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the government is free to regulate.

As a result of the Supreme Court decision, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1994, which amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to create a specific federal statutory exemption for the bona-fide religious use of peyote by tribal members in a traditional exercise of their religion.

"It's not about race," Botsford says. "It's about being a member or federally recognized tribe. The Native American Church believes that peyote is a gift from the creator to the Indian people. And as such, it is a sacrament that needs to be treated with reverence and respect. It is the non-Indians doing stuff that causes most of the problems."

When discussing the use of peyote by native people, both Kent and Zapf are adamant that their beliefs are the right ones.

"We're understaffed, and we're under threat of (federal) prosecution every day. Annie's peyote garden could put her in jail for 99 years. But we're prepared to do that. We're prepared to give up everything for what we believe in. Now that doesn't happen much in the United States of America anymore," Kent says, adding, "What the church does for the white man is it reconnects him to the Earth, which is his mother. And if we can balance out the Heavenly Father idea with the Earthly Mother idea, then you have a balance."

Church member Carl Hassell, who travels from California roughly four times a year to take peyote, says he suffers from a variety of illnesses, including cancer, that impact his bladder and prostate functions.

Hassell, who is also non-Native American, says that taking peyote has helped him to make peace with his illness and himself.

"Life is fragile," Hassell says. "Many of the people I knew did not make it into their 30s. Peyote made me a more peaceful person. I became more concerned about the welfare of all people. And as a result, I think it made me a better citizen. God either is or God isn't. We're either all God's children or we're not. I think everyone should have a chance to try the sacrament."

With so much devotion to the partial consumption of a slow-growing plant, one has to wonder if it isn't being loved to death. Peyote, which is very particular about its climate conditions, is mostly harvested in the wild.

Like much of this country, Texas, where the majority American peyote is harvested, is undergoing land use and development pressure. While both Kent and Zapf say an important part of the church's mission is to grow peyote in green houses so that it can be kept from extinction, Elizabeth Slown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) spokesperson for the South West Division, says she does not believe the plant is in jeopardy. However, Slown is quick to note that her organization has never researched the status of peyote and its habitat to determine if it might be endangered.

"We only conduct a study when something has been proposed for listing for threatened or endangered status, and peyote does not appear to be that way," Slown says.

For that to happen, Slown says another governmental service or a member of the public would have to contact the FWS about their concerns.

"From what I can tell, no one has done so to date," she adds. "I can tell you that we do have a list of candidates (for protection), and once they are on the list, it can be a while before they are considered because of the budget."

Slown says that although peyote is a federally controlled substance, it would not hinder her agency's protection of the plant if applicable, despite Zapf and Kent's claims to the contrary.

"I just don't see where it being a controlled substance would have any bearing," she says. "Tight budgets will have more to do with it (not being protected properly)."

Concluding the interview, Zapf and Kent lead us from the pottery studio through the main office of their operation. In one room, there is a gift shop with peyote inspired art, T-shirts and baseball caps for sale. At a table near the kitchen area sits someone whom Kent says has just taken peyote but requested not to be interviewed. And silently moving about is Trujillo himself. The presence of Trujillo is unmistakable. Quiet, except for an occasional viciously viscous-sounding cough, Trujillo says very little when we meet but produces photos from the '70s of himself, Kent and Zapf.

There is a sweet nostalgia to the moment as all three peer out from a faded past with the optimism of youth. The religious arguments, spiritual convictions and perceptions of persecution seem to temporarily melt away. For the moment, Trujillo is just another man showing off pictures of his loved ones and remembering a time long ago.

Taking advantage of the fading light, Dougherty hustles the group outside and tries to set up a photo. When Kent asks me if I have enough for the story, I tell him the only thing missing is my personal first-person account of what it is like to take peyote.

Trujillo, who had been off to the side, looks me in the eye for the first time and speaks clearly.

"There is a reason why bathrooms have doors," he says, and smiles broadly. I contemplate the meaning of his Zen-like riddle as Dougherty's camera snaps away.

On the way home, there is no sign of Red, the gimpy dog we had dropped off at the church entrance. Even without taking peyote, it's easy to feel a connection to this land. One can imagine that the Native Americans who lived here until they were driven off must have felt that connection as well.

Looking around, I am struck by the irony of a church being established hundreds of years later on that same land, with the stated goal of not only wrestling from Native Americans their legal exclusivity to a plant they hold sacred, but also marketing it to the world like a McDonald's Happy Meal for the soul.

With the evening desert sky folding into night, we pull over near a wash reinforced with the rusting hulks of wrecked cars. On the embankment, someone has taken the time to spray paint a punch line: car wash. We take a few photos and leave, following the incandescent tangerine glow over Tucson home, like moths to a flame.