02/27/08 - Martin Terry

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Professor Martin Terry of Sul Ross University discusses the legal peyote trade in the US and Mexico and it's use by the Native American Church.

Audio file

Cultural Baggage, February 27, 2008

Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

My name is Dean Becker. I don’t condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the phamaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage. I’m certainly glad you could be with us. Today we’re going to hear from Professor Martin Terry, a botanist at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas and we’re going to be talking about the peyote cactus. We’ll also get the Poppygate Report from Glenn Greenway and some Drug War Facts from Doug McVay and you’ll get a chance to ‘Name That Drug by its Side Effects.’ But first, let’s talk about desert medicine, desert sacrament.

In the last couple of weeks newspapers in Texas, the Dallas Observer and the Houston Press have carried a story that caught my attention. It’s titled up ‘Texas Peyote Hunters Struggle to Find a Vanishing Holy Crop’ and we’re lucky to have with us today the botanist that they quoted, quite frequently, throughout this article, Mr. Martin Terry.

Hello Martin.

Professor Terry: Hello, Dean. Glad to be here. Thank you.

Dean Becker: Well, thank you, Sir. Tell us about the work you do down there at Sul Ross.

Professor Terry: Basically, I am a botanist and so I look at things from a scientific standpoint but I also, I’m a specialist in the area of economic botany. So I’m particularly focusing on those plants which are involved in human affairs, in other words something that enters into commerce. And peyote is among those plants.

Dean Becker: The main gist I got from this is that this cactus is dwindling, certainly on the American side, almost becoming extinct on this side of the border. Is that a fair picture of it?

Professor Terry: You’re heading in the right direction but I’d like to make a couple of tweaks in the way the situation is described. It’s basically, peyote is not considered an endangered species, yet. It’s a very patchy situation. In other words, on those large ranches with ten foot fences around them to keep deer in, trophy deer, which is their main business and to keep people out, on those ranches where there’s no harvesting going on of the peyote, the populations are quite healthy.

There’s plenty of peyote there and they’re nice mature adults but once you get outside of that subset of large protected ranches then you find, everywhere where the licensed peyote distributors have access, there the populations are being hammered. And it’s essentially a problem of too frequent collecting to maintain sustainability.

Dean Becker: Kind of like the way they’re getting all the fish out of the ocean.

Professor Terry: Very much so. They’re just going back to harvest before adequate reproduction and growth has replaced those ones that they harvested last time. That’s a very good analogy, the one to the over-harvesting of the oceans.

Dean Becker: Let’s talk about those that harvest this. There are some three people in America that are allowed to legally harvest these cactus buds.

Professor Terry: OK, again, let’s tweak that just slightly. There are three DEA registered distributors of peyote who have a license, which they pay a license fee for, to send their people out to harvest peyote which then, they will sell to members of the Native American Church who have their papers to show that they’re bona-fide Native Americans who are going to use the peyote in their religious ceremonies.

But that’s not the only way that peyote gets harvested. There’s nothing in the laws to prevent a duly registered Native American tribe member, member of the church, to make a contract with a landowner directly so that, in that situation, the licensed distributors are not involved. That never gets accounted for and we have to assume that’s a sizable number of peyote plants that get harvested that way. And that never gets accounted for in the official statistics on peyote numbers and peyote sales.

Dean Becker: Well it was the federal government that did provide the provision...

Professor Terry: It’s the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, actually.

Dean Becker: …that allows for the Native Americans to use this. We had a very similar situation, gosh, just a year and half ago, where the Church Vegetal, I believe is allowed to use the ayahuasca ingredients. The fact is that I’m an American. I feel like if I wanted to use peyote it should be my right as well but this is only for those who are Indians, if you will.

Professor Terry: Yes.

Dean Becker: Is it used outside of the Native American Church?

Professor Terry: I’m sure it must be but, again, because that’s sort of outside the regulated commercial channels for peyote there’s no way of assessing how frequently that happens or what sort of numbers of people or peyote plants are involved in that. It’s like any situation where there’s a prohibition and you start asking questions about consumption of the prohibited substance you’re not going to get good, concrete, verifiable answers.

Dean Becker: Now that’s true. I will ‘fess up that back in the late sixties, early seventies some friends of mine, I’ll just say, used to go down there and get dropped off in the afternoon and take a gunny sack with them, round up a few of those ‘chief’ sized buttons, if you will, and get picked up after dark.

Professor Terry: Yep. I had friends who did things like that as well.

Dean Becker: And, again, that’s the ambition of youth I think a lot of times. In the old days they say they used to go out there onto all these ranches because the ranchers appreciated the little bit of money that they could bring in for these buttons but now that the oil has been found and the royalty checks are coming in they’ve closed down the number of ranches that will allow these peyote harvesters to do their work, right?

Professor Terry: That’s absolutely right, yes. And furthermore there’s been a change in land tenure over the past few decades. Whereas if you looked at the people who owned most of the land, say in the 1950s, you would have found that most of the people who owned the land were actually living on the land and were making a living from ranching. That is no longer the case. Now much of the land in South Texas, at least the larger tracts, are owned by people who have the money to afford such tracts now, which means they’re not living in South Texas.

They’re living in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio where the money is made. Their primary interest is to use these tracts for the hunting of trophy deer. And that’s how they make any income, any real income that they make. Cattle would be only for the tax exemption. The people like that are not going to be at all interested in allowing unknown people to be coming onto their land to harvest the peyote there for a few hundred dollars a year. I mean, that’s absurd. That’s totally uninteresting to the new landowners.

Dean Becker: According to the story the going rate for, and I guess these aren’t very big buttons, but the going rate for these buttons to the Native Americans is about thirty cents a button?

Professor Terry: That’s very close, yes. If you look at the Department of Public Safety, which is the State regulatory agency in charge of keeping the accounts on peyote sales that go through the distributors, again it would exclude any private contracts between land owners and Native Americans, but the DPS does keep track of the sales and if you look at what’s been happening to the sales over the last twenty years, and these are public figures, they are readily available, you see that the number of peyote buttons harvested by the distributors and their agents has fluctuated over the last twenty years.

It went up over two million buttons a year during, let’s say the early 1990s, and then came down again. And now it’s as low as it’s been historically. It’s down right around a million and a half buttons per year but the price, the total sales in dollars for those million and half buttons, it’s just under $500,000. So that comes out to, yeah, a little over thirty cents a button.

Peyote is still too cheap when acquired through legal channels and that’s one of the problems when you get to the field because the guys who go out to harvest for the licensed distributors, they’re just interested in beer money and they will harvest these things in a willy-nilly way, not taking care at all because what are they going to get?

They’re maybe get ten of fifteen cents when they sell the buttons to the licensed distributor who ‘employs’ them. And so they don’t have anything invested in taking care of the peyote crop. It’s cheap, it’s just beer money, they want to harvest them as fast as they can, sell them and go buy their beer.

Dean Becker: Yeah. The point being that if it’s done carefully, leaving the root, that the plant can in fact grow back, right?

Professor Terry: It can indeed. Now, to what extent that happens is a very live question. If you talk to people who have a vested interest in the peyote trade then they’ll say ‘Oh yeah, you cut the top off and in two years you’ve got another harvestable plant.’ That’s a gross exaggeration. You cut the top off and, first of all, you don’t know what percentage of the plants are actually going to survive that decapitation. And it’s weather dependent.

If people come along and harvest a ranch and leave the cut tops exposed and then you have this big rain you can get a lot of infection in those plants and they’ll just die. They’re not produce anything ever again. So that’s one factor.

On the re-growth side, even though they do re-grow I dare say, from what I can gather as a botanist, you’re not likely to see a harvestable button until about five years after the first harvest. So that re-growth, two things are happening. First of all, they’re going to be smaller stems that grow back from the once harvested plant and secondly, it’s going to take a long time for them to get to harvestable size.

And the fact that people are coming back after two years to re-harvest again they’ve got to be harvesting buttons that are much smaller than the average adult size. And this is one of the things that you see in that marketplace. You see that there’s been a constant decrease in the size of buttons, certainly, over the past ten to fifteen years.

And so now, even though the price hasn’t gone up dramatically, it’s gone up sort of linearly and quite slowly, but if you figure in the fact that the buttons that are costing thirty cents apiece are perhaps one fifth to one tenth of the weight of what the buttons used to be at, say, when they were ten cents apiece...the price has gone up astronomically.

Dean Becker: Now the piece references the big buttons, calls them the ‘chief’ and I suppose they’re large enough that one would suffice, so to speak, whereas it would probably take numerous of these smaller buttons to have the desired effect, right?

Professor Terry: Absolutely. I mean we’re talking real simple pharmacology here and even though a lot of people in the Native American Church object to the use of pharmacological terms with reference to the medicine because they consider it a very special sacred plant which, in their minds, is not a drug.

Dean Becker: Once again we’re talking with Mr. Martin Terry. He’s a professor at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas. We’re speaking about a recent piece in a couple of weeklies here in Texas and the title of the article was ‘Texas Peyote Hunters Struggle to Find a Vanishing Holy Crop.’ And let’s talk about that holy crop. The fact is, these Native Americans use this cactus on a vision-quest. Am I right? As a means to understand their life and, in fact, to better place themselves within their community Is that a fair statement?

Professor Terry: I think all those are fair statements. Many times the occasion of a meeting will be one particular focus. In other words, there may be a person who is ill and the group of the church will meet to focus on the illness of that person in an attempt to encourage that person to get well. So it’s a focusing of spiritual energy. And it can be for a specific purpose like that. Or somebody’s birthday, even, can be the occasion. Particularly an elder, someone who’s a hundred years old or something like that. There can be a meeting just for that occasion. And again, it’s a focusing of spiritual energy.

Dean Becker: Now, there are, as you said, some million plus of these buttons used on a yearly basis and yet we don’t hear any horror stories of people jumping out of windows or going berserk. It is rather mild in it’s application and in it’s effects on the person and their community, right?

Professor Terry: I would agree totally with that. I think it’s unfortunate in a way that peyote got swept up into the paranoia of the 1960s about hallucinogens because it doesn’t belong really in the same class of agents as, for example, LSD. You just don’t get people, as you say, jumping out of windows.

Peyote is perfectly compatible with the situation of a peyote meeting where you’ve got people sitting around in a circle, around a ceremonial fire which is tended in a very ritualistic specific way and they are singing religious songs and passing the water drum and the staff and the gourd rattle and this goes on, again, in a very tightly ritualized way all night long.

People are not getting up and dancing around or jumping out of windows in the case of, one of the incidents that actually sort of promoted the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That sort of behavior is just not going to happen with peyote.

Dean Becker: Well, just this past week we were carrying some reports from the BBC. They had rated the top twenty most dangerous drugs and I think they put LSD down around fourteen or something. Even there, they talked about the fact that it’s not really creating problems. That the propaganda about people wanting to fly and all that stuff has been rather overdone. And they had, in fact, zero deaths from even the LSD. I consider peyote to be, if I dare say this, ‘God’s drug.’ It is an awakening of the mind. It is something that should be treated with respect and dignity and it’s not a party drug at all.

Professor Terry: I would totally agree with that.

Dean Becker: The article talks about the fact that in Mexico some ninety percent of the peyote is still existent south of our border. But even down there it’s being abused by profiteers. Your thoughts on that?

Professor Terry: I was down there doing a DNA study and I came upon several situations where there would be, there was evidence of the digging up of whole peyote plants and basically the raping of populations, just the devastation...so I would say that in Mexico there is an increasing amount of over-harvesting and improper harvesting.

Dean Becker: Given this circumstance, Mr. Terry, what might be some solutions to help carry this population into the future?

Professor Terry: One of them that’s been proposed and been talked about in the Native American Church of North America is the importation of peyote from Mexico. Now that question about what constitutes plenty and how fast that’s decreasing in Mexico we just talked about, but my own view, not as a Native American Church member, is that that’s not a sustainable solution.

It would basically just extend our own problem with over-harvesting from Texas into Mexico. And that also doesn’t even take into account the fact that Mexico has it’s own problems of scarcity of peyote due to the over-harvesting that I mentioned. And it also has its own indigenous people who require peyote for their own ceremonial use.

Well, something that can be done is promoting better harvesting techniques in the U.S. through education and I would say, my own experience is, most of the harvesting by the DEA registered peyote distributors, the people that get called peyoteros, and their usual employees is performed correctly and I think it’s sustainable.

There are other harvesters, however, they sort of chop down into the ground and actually cut the plant too deep, too deep below the surface of the ground and what they’re doing then is cutting off most or all of the underground part of the stem which is what regenerates re-growth. The other possibility that’s talked about is increasing peyote yield in the natural habitat.

This would be buying up land in South Texas, in the normal natural habitat of the cactus, and increasing the rate of production in situ. In other words, right there, in the ground, in the native populations to increase the pounds of peyote per acre per year. You don’t have to get approval from the DEA because the cactus is already there.

As long as it’s not, as they say, reduced to possession then it’s simply treated as a wild plant. It’s not a controlled substance until somebody takes it out of the ground. So you don’t have to, you can sprinkle fertilizer on it and you’re not creating any sort of a violation.

So then the last thing that I would like to talk about, and this is being talked about more and more in the Native American Church, and that is greenhouse cultivation of peyote. I would propose that this is the ultimate solution. The downside is it would require regulatory approval by DEA because basically the law, the legislation, is silent.

The legislation neither says that it’s prohibited to do greenhouse cultivation nor does it say that it’s permitted. I can tell you there’s at least one petition for greenhouse cultivation buy a Native American church currently under consideration by DEA. I do know that. Any Native American church from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, and indeed a lot of Native American churches up into Canada, all of them would have the ability to create, to cultivate and produce their own sacrament through greenhouse cultivation.

And they could do so, I would say, from the sort of NAC standpoint, they would have the opportunity to raise their own sacrament using techniques that they themselves determine to be in harmony with their religious requirements. The real bottom line, though, from a conservation standpoint of this greenhouse cultivation idea is that it would make self-providers independent of the currently permitted sources of peyote that are limited to four counties in South Texas.

And therefore, the greenhouse cultivation, if widely adopted, would reduce the harvesting pressure on those remaining wild populations of South Texas and allow the ones that do remain to recover, and that I see as a really big plus for greenhouse cultivation.

Dean Becker: Alright, once again we’ve been speaking with Mr. Martin Terry, a professor at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas. It is my hope, Martin, that as Aldous Huxley said, the doors of perception to the divine source of all existence through the use of this plant, this cactus, will not be closed through extinction. I thank you for your time, Sir.

Professor Terry: Well thank you, Dean. If anybody wants to look at some of these ideas about solving the problem of peyote scarcity in the United States they might take a look at the Cactus Conservation Institute website. You can just google Cactus Conservation Institute and you’ll find it. There’s a nice little story in there called ‘Button, Button, who’s got the Button?’ which I think you and your listeners may find interesting.

It’s time to play ‘Name that Drug by its Side-Effects.’

(horrible side-effects including including rectal hemorrhage and death)

Answer: The answer from Brisotl-Meyer-Squibb. The answer, weirdly, is Aciphex for heartburn and obviously not for your ‘ass effects.’ By the way, the number of potential complications is more than one hundred.

Cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Doug McVay: The United Kingdom is the lead sponsor for international drug-fighting efforts in Afghanistan. That's not an attempt to duck responsibility, the US has been failing alongside them in that mission for the past several years, as Afghan opium output has steadily increased.

This is why it was surprising to learn that they have withdrawn funding for Afghanistan's drug fighting agency. London's Financial Times reported this week that the UK's government took away its subsidy at the request of the Afghan government. The move was reportedly part of an attempt to bring pay into line with that at other Afghan government ministries. Senior staffers had been making the equivalent of $1,500 (one thousand five hundred dollars) a month. As a result of the British funding halt, that pay was cut to $200 (two hundred dollars) a month since November of last year. The ministry reportedly has lost thirty senior staffers since that time. Other staffers report that they have not been paid since then.

This story is back in the news because about a week ago, the International Monetary Fund released its estimate of illicit opium's impact on the Afghan economy. According to the IMF, quote "About 12 percent of the population (or 3.3 million people) were involved in opium poppy
cultivation during the 2007 season, with the farm-gate value of the opium harvest amounting to $1 billion (11 percent of projected licit GDP). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the total value of the opium harvest (accruing to farmers, laboratory owners, and
traffickers) was about $4 billion in 2007, compared with $2.7 billion in 2005." end quote.

Meanwhile senior Afghan anti-drug officers are paid $200 (two hundred dollars) a month.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org.

Poppygate: Bizarre News about the U.S. Policy on Controlling Heroin, featuring Glenn Greenway.

President George W. Bush as Green President? He certainly has a green thumb; the International Monetary Fund reports this week that in Afghanistan, opium production has risen by 4,000 percent since the U.S. invasion six and a half years ago. According to the United Nations, opium is now equivalent to more than half of the country's GDP and the Council on Foreign Relations says that occupied Afghanistan has become "practically the exclusive supplier of the world's deadliest drug."

As for green, as in greenback green, last year Afghanistan's narcotics trade was worth a mere billion bucks for Afghan farmers but a whopping $150 billion or so for international organized crime.

Bush's gargantuan Afghan grow-op is a green dream.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Kabul stands a prison wing built at great expense by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Now open for eighteen months, the prison, built to house 96 Afghan high-value narco-traffickers, boasts security cameras, electronic locks and UN-approved levels of natural light. Incredibly, though, the prison is not in use. None of the designers appreciated the fact that Kabul's anemic power grid could not provide power to heat the place and run the cameras, locks and gates.

The prison wing has been recently equipped with it's own generators. But it's still empty because no Afghan high-value narco-traffickers have ever been arrested.

This week Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama claimed that for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it was "easier to get Taliban weapons" that it was to be properly equipped by their own country. Although the Pentagon denies the claim, ABC and FOX News independently confirmed the report. Now, consider that the Taliban purchase weapons with the proceeds from the Afghan narcotics trade and then consider that the narcotics trade is heavily subsidized by international drugs prohibition which very effectively turns nearly worthless agricultural products into veritable gold. Consider then that President Bush's under-equipped troops in Afghanistan are shooting weapons literally bought for by drug war.

In other words, "Green" Bush recycles weapons paid for by Bush White.

This is Glenn Greenway reporting for the Drug Truth Network.

Our good friend Glenn Greenway produces a transcript for our half-hour programs each week and you can access those online at drugtruth.net. Use them, quote them in letters to the editor or letters to your congressman and do your part to help end this madness and as always I remind you that because of drug prohibition you don’t know what’s in that bag. Please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Tap dancing on the edge on an abyss.

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net