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Johnson says that the tipping point for the peyoteros was the mid-1970s. As ranchers struck oil and gas, seemingly worthless South Texas scrubland became expensive. Many peyoteros found more lucrative work in the oil fields. Others were getting old and retiring. Stringent requirements for a peyote license, which include a letter of recommendation from the local sheriff, stopped a lot of young people from becoming peyoteros.
Johnson had returned from the Vietnam War and wasn't sure he wanted to continue the family tradition. He quit selling for a while in 1976. "We were selling peyote and making a profit, but I had to make sure I was doing the right thing for my family," Johnson says. "In the late 1970s, there were so many drugs on the market we had never seen before — angel dust, PCP, reds, yellows, blues. Then, the DEA classified peyote as a Schedule I substance. There were a lot of landowners who started to think peyote was a dangerous drug."
Johnson, a 60-year-old with a white moustache who looks like a well-tanned Wilford Brimley, wasn't sure he wanted to be associated with a drug most people thought was harmful and addictive.
"I said to myself, that, for me to continue to doing what I'm doing, I need to understand this drug," he said. "I needed to have an understanding with my family that I was doing the right thing. I wanted to understand its effects on health."
So Johnson went to visit an Indian he'd known his entire life named Leslie Full Bull. For a few months, Johnson lived on a reservation in South Dakota and got to see for himself the long-term impact of peyote. He came away believing that the plant was a positive thing for the community.
"I'm really involved with the Native American Church," he says. "I'm so involved with it that I believe that I'm one of the smartest people in the world about peyote. I've been to Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota...Name a state, name a tribe of Indians that use peyote, I've been there."
The real test, though, was a firsthand experience of peyote in a Native American ceremony — a meeting.
"I got so involved in these meetings that the only way for me to understand what this peyote does is to take it."
According to Jody Patterson, supervisor of Controlled Substances Registration with the Texas Department of Public Safety, peyoteros have to follow the same rules regarding peyote as everyone else. If they aren't one-quarter Indian and a member of the Native American Church, it's illegal no matter if it was taken as part of a religious ceremony.
Johnson, who says he's "probably" part Indian — "most Mexicans are" — has been taking peyote for "many, many years" and sees the legal niceties somewhat differently. He says he takes peyote only after it has been blessed by a high priest. He expects that the Indians he sells to will do the same.
"I can only hope that you're using it the right way," Johnson says. "Now, if I know you're using it the wrong way, I can report you and you'll be arrested."
Martin Terry is a Harvard-trained botanist at Sul Ross State in Alpine who may be the world's leading authority on peyote. He runs a small nonprofit called the Cactus Conservation Institute, which is dedicated to saving peyote from extinction.
"I've become increasingly passionate about the conservation of cacti in the past ten years," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "I've personally witnessed species becoming scarce in places where I had previously found them to be abundant."
Terry is afraid that the natural habitat for peyote in South Texas is being ruined by ranchers and poachers. "The problem is defined by access to land," he says. "The peyoteros are Hispanic. They work through family connections. More and more of the land is being bought up by Anglo owners who don't derive any benefit from the peyoteros. They don't give a damn about the peyoteros."
For the first time in history, Terry says, there's active patrolling of ranch grounds. Ranchers have cut back brush to allow trucks to ride along their fence lines. Ranchers want to protect against peyoteros getting in and deer getting out.
The ranchers' hands-off policy represents a dilemma for Terry. On the one hand, protection against peyoteros will conserve the cactus. One the other, it prevents Indians from getting access to their sacred plant.
"From the point of view of the plant, the only threat is overharvesting," he says. "The fences and personnel that protect ranch lands from would-be harvesters are the very opposite of a threat, as the protected populations of peyote inside those fences are the only healthy ones in South Texas."
Still, Terry is sensitive to the peyoteros and their way of life. He considers Mauro Morales a personal friend. He wants to make sure that Indians have access to their cactus, but that's getting harder and harder.
"Everyone I talk to, they say peyote is getting more expensive," Terry says. "The buttons are getting smaller. It's now about 30 to 35 cents a button. Ten years ago it was a third of that."
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