Despite its otherwise harsh policies towards controlled substances, Arizona is one of the few states that completely allows for the use of the psychedelic cactus peyote for religious purposes by non-native people, in addition to native people who fought for federal protections over their right to use peyote. Arizona also houses the only church in the nation that allows visitors to take peyote as part of a Spirit Walk, a ceremony that attracts people from around the world to the isolated desert in the otherwise sleepy town of Willcox, an hour east of Tucson.
Kevin, a 43-year-old substitute teacher from Page, Arizona, had no idea what he was getting into when he gulped down another sip of a disgusting drink made from the psychedelic cactus peyote, native to parts of Texas and Mexico. The liquid slugged down his throat as he took in his surroundings, a solitary spot under a canopy protecting him from the daylight’s harsh Arizona sun, a fireplace that would be crackling as soon as night fell, cozy spots to lay down and collect his thoughts, and a sleeping bag, completely surrounded by the isolated desert. As the substance began influencing his consciousness, he was awestruck by subtle hallucinations dancing across the desert scene.
“I would see faces in the mountains and on the ground; I could feel vibrations. At one point, I saw what looked like an angelic figure floating above,” Kevin recalled. His experience, called a Spirit Walk, began in the early evening after a day of rest and fasting. He stayed out alone in the desert until noon the following day.
Kevin first heard about peyote from the context of its use in Native American ceremonies in nearby Navajo communities. Peyote grows most widespread in Mexico, where indigenous people have been using it for approximately 2000 years. Not only was the inconspicuous cactus used spiritually but also as a remedy for ailments varying widely from snake bites to scarlet fever.
The first European to document the use of peyote by the indigenous people of Mexico was Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún, writing that “it takes effect like mushrooms. Also he sees many things which frighten one, or make one laugh. It affects him perhaps one day, perhaps two days, but likewise it abates. However, it harms one, troubles one, makes one besotted, takes effect on one… [The Chichimec people] were the first to discover and use the root which they call peiotl, and those who are accustomed to eat and drink them used them in the place of wine… Those who eat or drink it see visions either frightful or laughable… It is a common food of the Chichimecas, for it stimulates them and gives them sufficient spirit to fight and have neither fear, thirst, nor hunger, and they say it guards them from all danger.”
Native American tribes have used peyote for several centuries, and the prevalence of its use spread to more and more tribes as American settlers and the United States government interfered with and relocated tribes. Despite the cactus not being native to the region, peyotism exploded in popularity among the Plains Indians. After the Ghost Dance ceremonies of the 1890s, the United States government banned group dances and singing on reservations in an attempt to suppress the religious freedom of Native Americans. As the restrictions on their religious practices built, peyote ceremonies were increasingly performed in tipis, away from the prying eyes of government restrictions. In these ceremonies, people would eat dried pieces of peyote while singing songs and drumming.
As native culture and spirituality was increasingly vilified and demonized, the government made multiple attempted to ban the use of peyote as well. After decades of legal back and forth, members of the Native American Church won the right to have legal peyote ceremonies. Today, most states allow use of peyote by non-native people but only while in a Native American Church ceremony.
As researchers have turned their eye to psychedelic substances and their possible therapeutic uses for mental illness, the tangible benefits of peyote ceremonies are being realized. Peyote supporters report that the substance can help those working through trauma, such as those with PTSD.
While the potential therapeutic benefits of peyote are being explored in laboratories under careful supervision, it is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, a category of substances that are described as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the substance under medical supervision. Drugs in this category include heroin, marijuana, and LSD, among others.
With only a few tablespoons of the bitter tasting cactus needed to have a notable experience, the psychoactive ingredient mescaline surges through the body with effects being felt in as little as 45 minutes. The user commonly experiences nausea in the initial stages, followed by hallucinations, distortions in sound, changes in perception and thought patterns, and an often reported dreamlike or hazy aura. There is, however, also the possibility for some negative bodily and cognitive reactions including dryness of the mouth, vomiting, lethargy, anxiety, or psychosis in predisposed individuals.
Arizona, despite its often harsh laws around controlled substances, is one of only a few states in which non-native people can consume peyote for solely religious purposes not necessarily affiliated with the Native American Church. People from around the world flock to Arizona for peyote experiences, as the state houses the Peyote Way Church of God, one of, if not the only, place in the country where non-native people can easily and legally consume peyote. Nestled deep in the Aravaipa wilderness, the church is an independent religious organization founded in the 1970s by Reverend Immanuel Trujillo, a former member of the Native American Church, along with Reverend Annie Zapf and Rabbi Matt Kent. Immanuel served during World War II and interacted with many veterans who he felt could strongly benefit from peyote. As non-natives could not join the Native American Church, he left the church and made plans to open his own church.
The first journey for visitors is simply finding the church. Their website lists several paragraphs of detailed directions so visitors don’t get lost on the long and winding country roads, although many still do. After finding the church, visitors are greeted by Annie and Matt’s friendly dogs. The property is secluded and surrounded by hills, with uninterrupted desert as far as the eye can see. They grow peyote in an on-site greenhouse, a move which helps them reconcile with the decrease of peyote in the wild. Wild peyote has been so over-harvested, in fact, that it is now considered to be endangered. The peyote in their greenhouse will take a staggering twenty years to mature from seed to harvest. After arriving at the church and meeting the canine welcome party, guests are greeted by Annie and Matt, a warm and friendly duo who now lead the church.
Annie has been with the Peyote Way Church since the beginning in 1977 due to her strong beliefs in its ability to powerfully help people. The church had humble and casual beginnings in which those looking for a spiritual experience could just show up, receive some peyote, and go into the desert. Nowadays, people must book their experience beforehand, stay the night, and fast before consuming the peyote. Despite fasting, nausea and vomiting are still common. While physically unpleasant, vomiting can be considered spiritually important as it is associated with the reemergence of a repressing memory or emotion. Some visitors at the Peyote Way Church reported that when throwing up, they could feel hate, loss, and regret being purged as well.
When asked who she’d suggest peyote to, Annie insisted she wasn’t an evangelist.
“They have to really want the experience,” she emphasized. “But it is definitely very powerful for people with PTSD. We’ve had soldiers, we’ve had women who’ve done through traumatic sexual experiences. Then we get the computer nerds who are all locked up because they’re too much in their head. We get psychologists and therapists who want to have that empathy with the people they’re working with. The only people who wouldn’t benefit are those with schizophrenia. I feel like schizophrenics already have their spirit side wide open and they need to learn to deal with that.”
Despite the cactus’s fuzzy legal status and often vilified reputation, they still receive about four visitors every day on weekends. When asked why the experiences were so powerful and moving for many visitors, Annie had a simple, if not overly spiritual, explanation.
“You’re alone with the sacrament [peyote] in the wilderness and there’s no one to interfere. Just you, God, and the peyote.”