Most people in the United States are unaware of what an important role plants play in the field of medicine. Plants are the original source material for nearly 40% of all pharmaceutical remedies in the United States. In other words, there are prescription and over-the-counter drugs on the market right now that either contain plant-derived materials, or synthesized materials from agents that were originally derived from plants.
You’ve probably taken plant derived medicine at some point in your lifetime. There are numerous examples of how plants have been used medicinally via western science and pharmaceutical companies. Pseudoephedrine, a nasal and sinus decongestant and stimulant found in many over-the-counter cold and flu medications, was originally derived from the ephedra plant species. The cancer drug Taxol is derived from a plant alkaloid found in the Yew Tree. Quinine, the anti-malarial drug, was originally discovered in the bark of a cinchona tree. It was first used by the Quechua native people of Bolivia and Peru before being taken back to Europe by the Jesuits.
Culturally and traditionally, indigenous people have an especially close relationship with plants. Even today, roughly 80% of the world’s population still employs herbs as primary medicines. Although, tragically, because of the federal government’s policy of termination and assimilation of native people in this country and the suppression of cultural and spiritual beliefs that followed, a lot of American Indian traditional plant knowledge has been lost. Natives are fighting to protect and preserve their respective native languages. In a similar manner, we must now fight to protect and preserve ancestral knowledge about the medicinal uses of native plants. Like the buffalo and every other wild thing that lives and grows, native plants rooted in Ina Maka (Mother Earth) are part of our identity as native people. Without the flowering stick, the sacred hoop of life is incomplete and cannot be healed.
Peyote grows in northern and central portions of Mexico, and in parts of America’s extreme southwest. Native peoples have been ingesting peyote as a part of spiritual ceremonies for thousands of years. At present, the legal use of the peyote in the United States is now restricted to use in rituals and ceremonies performed within the Native American Church.
Under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the traditional religious use of peyote as a sacrament within the Native American Church was legalized; however, the transportation, possession, and use of peyote by unauthorized parties for use other than bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes is strictly prohibited. The Drug Enforcement Administration is responsible for the regulation and registration of persons who cultivate, harvest and distribute peyote under the law. State and local laws are also applicable.
Peyote, along with its naturally-occurring alkaloid Mescaline (or 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine), is considered a psychedelic drug. It should not be taken lightly. Like all medications, peyote can be toxic if taken in high doses. If one is careless in its ingestion, a harrowing psychological experience will follow. Recreational use of peyote is dangerous and may lead to serious side effects.
That said, there is increasing evidence that peyote has beneficial therapeutic uses in the treatment of drug addiction, alcoholism, depression and anxiety. Mescaline, the alkaloid found in peyote, is known to modulate neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine within the brain, both of which play essential role in the regulation of pleasure. Peyote activates the same receptor as serotonin. Serotonin affects the parts of the human brain that relate to feelings and perception. Individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, and personality disorders often have altered or injured serotonin systems. Peyote, acting as a sort of serotonin mimic, may therefore assist in the treatment of individuals who suffer from ailments where serotonin is lacking or ineffectual.
Dr. John Halpern, a psychiatrist who researched peyote use within the Native American Church, has found that peyote is beneficial in the treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse among American Indians, and unlike other psychedelic drugs, peyote doesn’t appear to cause permanent brain damage. Those who used peyote did so only in ceremony, and abstained from alcohol and drug abuse. He also concluded that setting is also crucial to the effective use of peyote. Sacred ceremonial surroundings are key to the healing visions experienced by those who use peyote as medicine.
Today, native people struggle with a myriad of health problems. Instead of feeding our sick an endless cycle of expensive, man-made prescription drugs produced by billion dollar pharmaceutical companies, some with possible side effects that include permanent heart or liver damage, stroke, or even death, we could be using ancestral knowledge to restore and safeguard our health. Native people who still practice traditional medicine are well aware of their healing benefits of medicinal plant use. They do not need western science to prove it to them. Nonetheless, as natives living in 2011, we ought to support ethical research into how native plants are used as medicine—for posterity, and to insure that our use as such is protected under the law. As living representatives of our ancestors, it is our responsibility to preserve and protect traditional knowledge in all its forms. Native people are now in the position to decide whether or not such knowledge is disseminated and to insure its proper use.