Mescaline on the Mexican Border

Texas is the only state in the country where peyote is sold legally. Really.

The peyoteros had a natural monopoly on their crop. Even though it's illegal to cultivate, there have been sporadic attempts to transplant the cactus to Oklahoma and New Mexico, all to no avail. In the United States, peyote will only grow in the hot, dry climate of South Texas.

The peyoteros remember a time a generation ago when Indians camped out and harvested their own peyote. "Back then, it was what we call open range," says Salvador Johnson, another peyotero. "You could harvest what you needed. At that time, ranchers were poorer than we were. They couldn't even afford feed for the cattle. Now those same ranchers are multimillionaires from oil and gas royalties." (Click here for a video interview with Morales and Johnson.)

Like many peyoteros, Johnson was a little mystified when peyote suddenly became trendy in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. It was during this time that the drug caught on among hippies and New Age folk, largely through the works of Carlos Castaneda, an anthropologist-turned-best-selling author.

Huichol artist Olivia Carrillo makes peyote-inspired art in Real de Catorce.
Daniel Kramer
Huichol artist Olivia Carrillo makes peyote-inspired art in Real de Catorce.
The inside of a peyote button tastes like a dirty raw potato, with a jalapeño backbite.
Daniel Kramer
The inside of a peyote button tastes like a dirty raw potato, with a jalapeño backbite.

Castaneda wrote a series of books about a shaman named Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian who took the anthropologist under his wing. Don Juan believed that "mescalito" — a code word for peyote — was a vehicle for self-knowledge. Through mescalito, Don Juan said, one could learn how to fly and see beings in liquid colors. Under Don Juan's tutelage, the rational academic learned how to become a sorcerer and warrior.

Castaneda's books were a phenomenon. The author, however, turned out to be a fraud. He was denounced by fellow anthropologists for trying to pass off a fictional character as an authentic source. In a cover story in Time in 1973, the magazine presented evidence that the author had lied about his background, including his nationality. None of this, however, stopped the influx of peyote-seekers in the one place in the nation where the plant grew wild.

Poachers started arriving, many of them Anglo hippies from the West Coast. One of those poachers was Frank Collum (not his real name), a hippie from Connecticut who had heard about the peyote gardens through some Indian friends in New Mexico. When he first started going to South Texas in the early 1970s, he would hop a fence and camp out for a week.

Now, he doesn't think it's worth the risk of getting caught for trespassing. Collum still goes down to South Texas, but his Indian wife buys dried peyote from Salvador Johnson. (In addition to belonging to the Native American Church, peyote buyers have to prove they are at least one-quarter related to a federally recognized Indian tribe.) Collum raised his son in the Church, going to meetings that would include all-night ceremonies in a teepee. Those days are gone.

"Peyote is in jeopardy," he says. "You hear stories about it coming from Mexico now. The ranchers in Texas have put up tall fences you can't jump. Then, there are all the wetbacks and Border Patrol. There's just too much heat."

"A lot of the Natives are real sensitive about the situation," Collum says. "The supply will not meet the demand unless you can convince the ranchers to cooperate. And the ranchers, they don't give a fuck about peyote."

Ranchers used to be friendly with the peyoteros, who paid them a small lease for access to their land. In recent years, as land prices have skyrocketed and Hispanic immigration has boomed, Anglo ranchers have come to view the peyoteros as a nuisance. According to Morales, many ranchers would rather root-plow their fields to plant grass for cattle feed than protect their native plants.

Salvador Johnson used to be a full-time peyotero, but now it's a part-time job. Rather than fight the ranchers, he's started helping them organize hunting trips. He also works as a general contractor around his hometown of Mirando City, a hamlet about half an hour east of Laredo.

"The big money is in deer hunting," says Johnson.

Mauro Morales remembers when it was possible to find massive clumps of peyote growing wild. "There was medicine just a couple miles from my home," he says. He grew up on the same street where he still lives in a ramshackle, two-story pink house with a dirt driveway. As a young man, he worked in the fields harvesting peyote for extra money. The matriarch of the peyote trade, a woman named Amada Cárdenas, first showed him peyote in 1950.

"Natives call the big ones 'chief,'" he says. "And when they find a chief, they get down and pray to it. Miss Cárdenas showed me my first chief."

Morales says that it's getting harder and harder to find chiefs. The only way to ensure the supply, he says, is greenhouse cultivation, something he's discussed with botanists from around the world, including a group from Germany that visited him in January.

But Johnson, the only remaining peyotero in the once-thriving area east of Laredo known as the Mirando Valley, doesn't believe cultivation will solve the peyoteros' problems.

"Even if we buy the land, we don't have control of peyote because God put it here," he says. "We don't know how it grows, how it multiplies. God will give us what we need, and that's it. He's the one who makes the rain. He's the one who makes the peyote."

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