Peyote sustainability isn’t just about protecting a cactus. It’s also about conserving a religious sacrament that has played a role in Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Conversations about peyote also involve recognizing the long history of battles that Native Americans have fought for legal access to a plant with major cultural, religious, and medicinal significance.
What Is Peyote?
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small psychoactive cactus native to parts of Texas and Mexico.1 It naturally contains mescaline, a psychoactive compound that causes effects like hallucinations and mystical experiences. Peyote and mescaline are illegal in the United States, but members of the Native American Church (NAC), a pan-Indian religion with chapters across the United States and Canada, can use it in peyote ceremonies under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
One problem: Peyote populations are shrinking. And as psychedelics continue to advance in popularity and accessibility, peyote is in a situation where its vulnerable status could progress to “endangered” relatively quickly. Let’s talk about peyote sustainability, the factors affecting peyote habitats, and what needs to happen to conserve this vital cactus.
Is Peyote Endangered?
On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, peyote is “vulnerable” due to its decreasing population. 2 “Endangered” is the next level.
About 80 percent of peyote’s habitat exists in Mexico. 3 The habitat along the Rio Grande River in South Texas is a revered landscape among peyotists, earning the region the name “Peyote Gardens.” 4 In this region, factors like habit destruction and overharvesting are contributing to its dwindling numbers.
With notable exceptions, minimal research has examined the factors affecting peyote populations in South Texas (the first survey of wild species was published in 2020). 1 Without preservation and sustainability efforts, the peyote cactus might be headed toward extinction. 5
Why Is Peyote Vulnerable to Extinction?
Peyote is a slow-growing plant species that can take up to 10 years to mature from seed to harvestable size.6 Even when the cactus is harvested with the proper techniques to promote regrowth, it takes at least 6-8 years for these cacti to regrow.1
It’s not uncommon for cacti to take a while to grow, but peyote is already in a difficult position. On top of taking as long as a decade to mature, habitat loss, overharvesting, and improper harvesting techniques also threaten peyote numbers.
These factors paint a bleak picture for NAC members who use peyote as medicine in sacred ceremonies, which is critical to keep in mind as psychedelics bubble into the mainstream.
Some Texas landowners use “root-plowing” techniques to get rid of a desert shrub called creosote bush. The goal is to open up more land for grazing cattle. However, creosote and peyote grow well together; peyote grows under the bush’s canopy. 5
Peyote researcher and peyotist Dawn D. Davis, PhD, is one of few researchers studying the preservation and sustainability of peyote. She is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, and in her Master’s thesis, she notes that root-plowing is as damaging as its name implies. Although the practice gets rid of creosote bush, it also eliminates the symbiotic growth of peyote.
Davis also points out that economic factors have contributed to peyote’s dwindling numbers. In Texas, hydraulic fracturing and rural land expansion for residential housing cut into peyote’s natural habitat. Plus, a long history of oil development has expanded the number of access roads in the region, increasing unlicensed peyote harvesters.5
Peyote is also subject to one of the most rampant invasive species in the United States: feral hogs. These hogs are known to trample peyote at depths of up to three feet, limiting the plant’s ability to regrow. 3
Peyote demand is approximately 5-10 million buttons per year (“buttons” refers to the soft, fleshy crown of the cactus that grows above ground). But fewer peyote buttons are being harvested and sold annually, from 2.3 million buttons in 1997 to just over 1.1 million in 2014. 6
Said another way: Legal supply is struggling to satisfy demand.
Peyote grows on private lands that ranchers in South Texas own. Peyotists rely almost exclusively upon peyoteros, who function as “brokers” to harvest and sell peyote buttons. Peyoteros have to obtain a permit from the Texas Department of Public Safety, pay an annual fee, and pay landowners within South Texas for access to peyote on their land. 5
The state only allows licensed peyoteros to harvest and sell the planet to members of the NAC. There are four registered peyote dealers in Texas, employing 1 to 11 peyoteros each. 1
Martin Terry, PhD, is a botanist researching peyote. He also established the Cactus Conservation Organization. In a 2003 article, he noted that a decreasing number of ranchers are willing to lease peyote harvesting rights. Additionally, peyoteros are returning too soon to harvest from the same ranches. 7
This developing peyote shortage has increased prices and reduced the size of peyote buttons sold by Texas peyoteros. Small buttons are a sobering sign: They come from immature plants less likely to regrow.
Peyote’s perilous position explains why the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) published a statement in March 2020 in response to growing conversations about decriminalization efforts.
The statement requests that decriminalization efforts not mention peyote in any list of plants and fungi. Doing so may give “non-native people the impression that they now have rights to acquire, possess, use, or transport peyote in or from Texas would be misleading and may lead to their prosecution.” 8
Davis notes that, ideally, peyoteros should harvest peyote in a five-year rotation, which would still allow peyoteros to meet the demands of the NAC. However, peyoteros currently work at two-year intervals, which isn’t sustainable. 5
Gathering the plant itself can also be problematic. Removing only the crown (the soft, topmost part of the cactus that looks like a pincushion) can improve survival and increase the chances of regeneration. Cutting into the root or picking the entire cactus causes the plant to die.
Additionally, peyote pickers are paid based on the number of buttons they pick. Smaller buttons are lighter to carry, but they come from immature plants. Pickers don’t have an incentive to leave the smaller buttons behind. A mature plant, if harvested correctly, will survive and continue to grow after being harvested—but a smaller plant will typically die. 5
Peyote Conservation Strategies
- Incentivize Texas landowners to preserve land for the recovery of the peyote species
- Amend local regulations to include sustainable harvesting techniques
- Collaborate with stakeholders of the NAC in future policy
Conserving peyote isn’t as simple as growing more of it. Although peyote can grow in greenhouses, this step is a stopgap measure. The focus should be on building sustainable strategies to preserve peyote in its natural habitat. (Notably, the NAC’s ceremonial peyote protocols require prayer and kinship to the land). 10
In her thesis, Davis suggests a model that includes recommendations like establishing a conservation easement or land trust, which would provide tax benefits to the landowner while preserving specific plots to recover the peyote species.
She also recommends amending the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Rules and Regulations to include proper harvesting techniques and requiring the sale of peyote buttons at least 6.35 centimeters in diameter, which is the recommended harvest size to support peyote regrowth. 5
One of Davis’s most important recommendations is to collaborate with stakeholders of the NAC, inviting Indigenous voices to a table that has historically oppressed and marginalized Native Americans.
Planing with NAC members, landowners, and peyoteros would allow conversations about preserving peyote’s natural habitat to consider peyote’s importance in the NAC religion and Native American traditions.
Organizations supporting peyote conservation
The following organizations support the preservation of peyote and/or the preservation of Native American rights. Check them out to follow their work.
- Cactus Conservation Institute
- Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI)
- Native American Rights Fund
- The Riverstyx Foundation
A Decolonial Argument for Peyote Alternatives
We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: If you are non-Indigenous, read the room and don’t harvest or buy peyote. The availability of this sacred plant is essential for ceremonial peyote practices that have been with Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
Fewer peyote buttons mean that the NAC will have to adjust its practices. “Adjusting” could mean finding an alternate source for peyote, using less of it, or holding fewer peyote ceremonies. These steps are problematic because peyote ceremonies play a prominent role in the NAC. 11 Peyote’s spiritual significance equals the Judeo-Christian practice of taking communion.
History lesson: Native American tribes have already endured the apocalypse. In the 1800s, Native American tribes were forcefully displaced from their native lands by Euro-American colonizers.12 Stolen lands and natural resources, government-sanctioned oppression, and the attack of practices like peyotism became the status quo.
As tribes were forcefully removed from their lands and scattered throughout the United States, peyotism provided a way for people to cope with the constraints of the government’s reservation system, preserve tribal knowledge, and carry on traditional practices. The NAC helped protect peyote as a form of religious freedom. As a result of the NAC’s efforts, the United States legally sanctioned peyote with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
Other natural sources of mescaline that don’t have the same ecological, cultural, or ethical implications as peyote include:
- San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi)
- Peruvian torch cactus (Trichocereus peruvianus, aka Echinopsis peruviana)
- Trichocereus scopulicola (aka Echinopsis scopulicola)
Frequently Asked Questions
Is peyote endangered?
Peyote is “vulnerable” due to its decreasing population. Without conservation strategies, researchers believe that peyote will become endangered soon.
Why is peyote vulnerable to extinction?
- It’s slow-growing and takes 10 years to reach full maturity.
- Peyote only grows in a specific region of Texas and Mexico.
- Its natural habitat is dwindling in Texas, where peyote grows on private land. Landowners aren’t incentivized to preserve peyote.
- Overharvesting to meet peyote demand is limiting peyote’s ability to regrow.
- Improper harvesting techniques can (and do) kill the plant.
Who should and shouldn’t use peyote?
Peyote is a religious sacrament for the Native American Church (NAC). Therefore, non-Indigenous people should not buy peyote or use it outside of an NAC ceremonial context.
The Bottom Line
In the midst of conversations about decriminalizing plant medicines, it’s vital to recognize the unique position that peyote holds. This sacramental cactus is foundational for Native American peyote ceremonies, but its population is threatened. Rather than encouraging peyote use among non-Indigenous people, it’s important to communicate the history of this cactus and the many peyote alternatives that exist in nature.
1. Ermakova A, Whiting CV, Trout K, Clubbe C, Terry MK, Fowler N. DENSITIES, PLANT SIZES, AND SPATIAL DISTRIBUTIONS OF SIX WILD POPULATIONS OF lophophora williamsii (CACTACEAE) IN TEXAS, U.S.A. BioRxiv. Published online April 3, 2020. doi:10.1101/2020.04.03.023515
3. Terry M, Trout K, Williams B, Herrera T, Fowler N. Limitations to natural production of Lophophora williamsii (Cactaceae) I. Regrowth and survivorship two years post harvest in a south Texas population. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Published online December 7, 2011.