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    Featured articles:
    A Tale of Two Cacti
    Dana M. Price & Martin Terry

    Button, button, who's got the button?
    Martin Terry

    Conservation of Lophophora in Mexico
    Martin Terry

    Flora of the Dead Horse Mountains
    Joselyn Fenstermacher


    Button, button, who's got the button?
    Commerce, Religion, Drug Regulation and Conservation
    in the Current Peyote Trade of the Texas Borderlands.

    Martin Terry
    Department of Biology, Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas.

    Slideshow accompanying a talk presented to the Center for Big Bend Studies, November 2007

    [Link to the same material but presented as slides]

    Lophophora williamsii in habitat

       Typical Lophophora williamsii (peyote) in habitat in Starr County, Texas.
       The U.S. 25-cent coin provides scale.

       These are not large plants, and are almost certainly regrowth from previous harvest(s).

    Lophophora williamsii in habitat

       Typical Lophophora williamsii var. echinata (peyote) in habitat in central Coahuila (near Cuatrocienegas).

       These plants, strikingly different from the South Texas plants, are similar to the plants in the populations of West Texas.

    Lophophora williamsii in habitat

    A dried peyote button, approximately 2 cm in diameter.

    Gate to Native American Church Spiritual Residence in Mirando City, Texas.
    Note top of tipi in lower right.

    The Problems of Diminishing Returns

          NAC membership: Unknown.
         250,000-400,000 members?

         Demand for peyote exceeds the supply.

         Demand appears to be increasing while the supply is decreasing.

    The Problems of Diminishing Returns

       In Texas, peyote occurs only on the periphery, along the Mexican border.

       Commercially harvestable quantities occur only in four counties: Starr, Zapata, Webb and Jim Hogg.

       This small area of habitat in the South Texas borderlands supplies the peyote needs of the NAC across the entire continental United States and Canada.

    Distribution of Lophophora williamsii

    Distribution of Lophophora williamsii.

       Shaded area corresponds to the area outside of which peyote is not known to occur naturally.
       The actual distribution within the shaded area is extremely patchy.

    The Problems of Diminishing Returns

       The DEA-registered distributors of peyote are under pressure to harvest as much peyote as possible to satisfy their NAC customers.

       The result is that the distributors return to harvest previously harvested populations too soon – before the newly regenerated buttons are mature.

    The Problems of Diminishing Returns

    The results of harvesting too frequently:

         (1) Average size of harvested buttons decreases, which results in consumption of greater numbers of buttons to achieve the desired psychic effect. (Vicious circle.)

         (2) Seed production of plant population decreases, so that harvested plants are not sufficiently replaced by seedlings.

         (3) Some harvested plants never grow back. (Harvest-related mortality.)

    Harvested peyote

    Freshly cut peyote buttons
    in a bin of one DEA-registered peyote distributor in South Texas.

    Notice the small size of the majority of the buttons being offered for sale to the Native American Church as religious sacrament. Many are only 1-2 cm in diameter.

    Photo © 2007 by Gerhard Koehres

    Harvested peyote

    Freshly cut peyote buttons
    in a bin of a second DEA-registered peyote distributor in South Texas.

    Notice again the small average size of the majority of these buttons.

    Photo © 2007 by Gerhard Koehres

    Peyote harvest & sales

    Total annual sales of peyote buttons
    by all registered peyote distributors,
    as accounted for by the Texas Department of Public Safety,
    from 1986 to 2011.

    Upper curve is number of buttons sold.
    Lower curve is total sales in dollars.

    Click here to see the actual numbers through 2014

    Implicit in these numbers is this fact:
       While the cost per button has risen in a more or less linear fashion over time, the cost per gram of peyote tissue (which corresponds to the cost per amount of peyote required for sacramental use per person) has increased dramatically with the marked reduction in average size of the buttons being sold.

    Peyote Scarcity is Not Geographically Ubiquitous

         Many ranchers exclude peyote harvesters from their ranches and actively protect their peyote populations from poachers.
         Where peyote is protected from harvesting, the populations are healthy.

         But this fact does not help the NAC or the peyote distributors.

    Possible Solutions

    Importation of peyote from Mexico

         (1) Not a sustainable solution.

         (2) Would merely extend the problem of overharvesting from Texas into Mexico.

         (3) Mexico has its own problem of scarcity of peyote due to overharvesting in certain regions, as well as its own indigenous peoples who require peyote for ceremonial use.

         (4) "Protección especial": To date, the Mexican authorities have shown no interest in allowing exportation of Mexican peyote to the U.S.

    Possible Solutions

    Better harvesting techniques through education.

         (1) Most harvesting by DEA-registered peyote distributors and their usual employees is performed correctly and sustainably (cutting the button off at ground level to promote regrowth).

         (2) Some harvesters cut too deep on the underground part of the stem or into the root, rendering regrowth unlikely or impossible.

         (3) Others are digging up entire plants by the roots, eliminating any possibility of regrowth.

         (4) Behavior modification is a long-term process.

    Harvesting peyote

    Recommended technique
    for sustainable harvest of peyote button.

      The cut is made at ground level and parallel to the surface of the ground.
        Unfortunately, this procedure is not universally followed in practice, which may result in decreased regrowth. This means increased mortality in harvested plants.

    Possible Solutions

    Greenhouse cultivation of peyote.

         (1) Requires regulatory guidance from DEA, which means creating new policy. At least one petition for greenhouse cultivation by a Native American Church is currently under consideration by DEA.

         (2) Requires acquisition of a greenhouse and following a learning curve to optimize greenhouse horticultural production.

    Possible Solutions

    Increasing peyote yield in natural habitat.

         (3) Requires no huge investment in land.

         (4) Security in a greenhouse is easier to maintain than security on rural land in South Texas.

         (5) Can be done at any latitude and in any climate.

    Possible Solutions

    Greenhouse cultivation of peyote.

          (6) Would provide NAC groups with the opportunity to supply their own sacrament using techniques that they themselves determine to be in harmony with their religious requirements for their sacrament.

          (7) Would make the self-providers independent of the currently permitted sources of peyote that are limited to South Texas.

          (8) Would reduce the harvesting pressure on the wild populations of South Texas, allowing the remaining ones to recover.


    A research greenhouse, registered with the DEA,
    where peyote has been cultivated since 2003.

    peyote in cages

       Welded steel cages with padlocks contain the peyote, to prevent "diversion".

    Lophophora under cultivation

    Inside their cages the Lophophora plants are quite healthy.

    There is a learning curve to optimal cultivation of peyote, but it is no more difficult than cultivating other cacti – and is much easier than with many of the more delicate species of cacti.

        Feasibility is not an issue.

    Thanks to the following folks for their help:

         Leslie Thayer-Coleman and the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) for the peyote sales data.

         Gerhard Koehres for recent photos of commercially harvested buttons of small size in Mirando City and Rio Grande City.

         Bennie Williams for the photo of the NAC gate at the Cárdenas place in Mirando City.

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