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In Texas, peyote dealers struggle with dwindling supply of plants

Over-harvesting making the crop even more scarce

Mauro Morales sorted peyote buttons in Rio Grande City, Texas. He has been a licensed dealer in the United States since 1990, but said sales have fallen as plants have become harder to find. Mauro Morales sorted peyote buttons in Rio Grande City, Texas. He has been a licensed dealer in the United States since 1990, but said sales have fallen as plants have become harder to find. (Lm Otero/ Associated Press)
By Will Weissert
Associated Press / November 25, 2010

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RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas — When the State of Texas licensed him as a peyote distributor in 1990, Mauro Morales put a sign in his front yard with his name and phone number: “Peyote Dealer. Buy or Sell Peyote.’’

His neighbors balked, saying calling so much attention to his trade had to be against the law. “So I called Austin and said, ‘I think everything’s legal. I’ve got the paperwork. Can’t I put up a sign?’ ’’ Morales recalled.

Twenty years later, the sign still stands, but it’s harder than ever for Morales to make a living. The hallucinogenic cactus is becoming more difficult to find because many ranchers have stopped allowing peyote harvesters on their land, preferring to plow the grayish-green plant under so cattle can graze. Others now lease their property to deer hunters or oil and gas companies.

The result is over-harvesting of remaining stocks, making peyote even more scarce. “Things are kind of getting slower every year,’’ said Morales, who is one of just three Americans licensed to sell peyote, which grows wild in four Texas counties along the border with Mexico.

Peyote is illegal under federal law, except for use in some American Indian religious ceremonies. Since the mid-1970s, the state has licensed a small number of people to sell it to members of the Native American Church.

California voters recently rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and a drug war threatens to tear Mexico apart. But Morales says his business is simple and honest.

“I try to stay out of problems,’’ he said. “I’ve been doing it too long.’’

Morales, 67, has seven employees who search for peyote plants to harvest their “buttons,’’ small, round growths that contain the mind-altering juice mescaline, which produces a dreamlike delirium for up to 12 hours.

Users generally chew on the buttons, smoke them, or boil them in water to make tea.

Morales’s crews now bring in about 3,000 buttons per day, but even four years ago, it was 10,000. He began harvesting peyote at 14, when American Indian elders taught him to cut the buttons without harming the roots. Back then, each button could be sold to distributors for a nickel, but had to be at least as large as a half dollar.

Now Morales pays his harvesters 15 cents per button, no matter the size. “There are no more half-dollar sizes around.’’

Known as peyoteros, the distributors use information provided by families in the area to hunt the cactus down, and they know all roads and trails by heart.

Prime spots are usually hillsides that are a bit rocky and have no sand in the soil. The intense heat means harvesters can often search only until early afternoon and must contend with the occasional rattlesnake.

Tela Mange, Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, said peyote distributors sold more than 1.5 million buttons worth approximately $483,000 last year, up from nearly 1.48 million buttons with a value of $471,000 in 2008. But that’s down sharply from the mid-1990s, when distributors sold more than 2.3 million buttons, according to Morales and another licensed peyote dealer, Salvador Johnson.

Mange said the number of licensed distributors in Texas has declined as the job has gotten harder. Specialists have noticed the same changes.

“The cactus grows slowly, and the peyoteros are forced to go back too early and harvest regrowth buttons,’’ said Martin Terry, a biology professor at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

Harvesters once routinely uncovered 100- to 150-year-old plants but now usually settle for cacti that are less than five years old, said Johnson, who deals peyote in Mirando City, about 90 miles north of Rio Grande City.

Teodosio Herrera is spiritual leader of the 30-member Rio Grande Native American Church and calls peyote “the medicine,’’ a moniker used by everyone who deals legally in the cactus. He said the problem of cutting away buttons too early is exacerbated by poachers who harvest peyote incorrectly, harming the roots so the plants cannot regenerate.

“If we don’t do something to ensure survivability, it may not be around for my great-grandchildren,’’ said Herrera, 62.

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