Legality of Peyote

Baby Peyote CactusRecreational use of peyote is prohibited in all of the states and territories and by federal law. Recreational users of peyote may face large fines or even jail time if caught. Additionally, the sale and production of peyote for non-religious purposes is also against the law in the United States. Although not discovered nearly as often, peyote growers are usually treated the same way by law enforcement as marijuana growers.

Although ceremonial use of peyote was also illegal at one time, the United States now exempts this type of peyote use as legal. However, legal peyote use is restricted to the Native American Church. The distinction does not extend to other Native American groups that use peyote in religious ceremonies. As such, a number of religious peyote growers and users have been targeted and prosecuted by local law enforcement agencies. For example, the Peyote Foundation in Arizona was raided by local officials in 1998. Other Native American groups continue to strive for the legalization of peyote, but have not been successful thus far.

Famous Court Cases

Native American Church of New York v United States (1979)

In 1976, Alan Birnbaum, founder of the Native American Church of New York petitioned the Drug Enforcement Agency to allow peyote use in religious ceremonies. His petition was quickly denied, so Birnbaum decided to sue. He believed that the denial of his petition went against his First Amendment right to freedom of religion. After all, when peyote use was banned in the Controlled Substances Act of 1965, and exemption was provided for users from the Native American Church. The Drug Enforcement Agency argued that the Native American Church of New York had not been exempted in the legislation, and were therefore not allowed to use peyote in their ceremonies. In this case, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Native American Church of New York, announcing that it too would be protected under the Controlled Substances Act.

Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990)

This Supreme Court case was a step backwards for the Native American Church and other Native American groups that used peyote for religious purposes. The case revolved around Alfred Smith and Galen Black, who had been fired for using peyote while working at a drug rehabilitation clinic. When the two filed for unemployment benefits, they were denied, as their loss of employment was deemed a result of professional misconduct. The Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court decided that Smith and Black had been in the right, having only consumed peyote in a religious ceremony. However, the United States Supreme Court reversed this decision. The decision was based on the justices' belief that Oregon's anti-peyote law did not go against First Amendment religious rights, as it prohibited peyote use in all people, not just Native Americans

The decision reached in Employment Division of Oregon v Smith was reversed in 1994 with the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. This legislation legalized peyote when used in religious ceremonies by the Native American Church.

People v. Woody (1964) 61 Cal.2d 716

[3b] We have weighed the competing values represented in this case on the symbolic scale of constitutionality. On the one side we have placed the weight of freedom of religion as protected by the First Amendment; on the other, the weight of the state's "compelling interest." Since the use of peyote incorporates the essence of the religious expression, the first weight is heavy. Yet the use of peyote presents only slight danger to the state and to the enforcement of its laws; the second weight is relatively light. The scale tips in favor of the constitutional protection.


Sources Cited:

"Employment Division v Smith, 494 U. S. 872 :: Volume 494 :: 1990 "US Supreme Court Cases from Justia & Oyez.

"Native American Church of New York v. United States, 468 F. Supp. 1247 (S.D.N.Y. 1979)."Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church.

"People v Woody :: 61 Cal2d 716"