Let Them Eat Cake

There is a philosophical saying, a rule of thumb, known as Hanlon’s Razor which states basically that:

Never attribute to conspiracy what is adequately explained by incompetency.

The idea is that you can mess more stuff up by misapplication of bad information than you can by being sinister and calculating. A great example of this is how Chairman Mao, in his Great Leap Forward campaign of the mid 1950’s, ended up causing the starvation of millions of people through well intentioned policy

China was already challenged in producing sufficient food for a growing population. So Mao created what amounts to a War On Sparrows as part of what he called the 4 Pests Campaign. The story goes that the chairman was visiting an agricultural area when he observed sparrows eating rice in the fields. Some genius did the calculations and decided that if sparrow A eats X amount of grain each day then millions of sparrows eat X amount of tons of grain every year. So in order to fend off this bird thievery, a campaign was initiated to end the feathered menace.

Firearms and slingshots were engaged by the citizenry as well as the absurd sounding but effective tactic of beating pots and pans in the fields so that the birds were frightened to land. This reportedly caused large numbers of sparrows to die from exhaustion and lack of food. The scheme worked only too well.

What followed the great sparrow die off was a massive increase in crop devouring locusts and other destructive insects. Bad weather played a part as well in the ensuing widespread crop failures which compounded the food shortage that resulted in the deaths of unknown millions of people. It turns out that the sparrows who took their needed share of rice, also relied on insects in their diet. By the time the problem was recognized it was obviously a little late. China resorted to importing 250,000 sparrows to try and reverse the oopsy. By sharing in the harvest the sparrows were actually providing more food for the humans, not less.

It wasn’t the good intent of the plan that mattered. It was just a bad plan based on incomplete information and faulty reasoning. Western historians chronicle the starvation of millions during the Maoist cultural uprising and there is no doubt Mao was an authoritarian despot, but many of his people’s deaths were a result of bad policy rather than murderous conspiracy.

Stained Glass Peyote

How does Hanlon’s Razor apply to peyote conservation? I’m probably not the one to draw the circles and arrows connecting the cause and effect relationship of policy to problem… but then again, maybe I am. But I’d rather just look at the policies as they exist, specify their action and reasoning, then let the reader decide whether we are making more rice or less by their application. Fair enough?

Someone please stop me before I make another janky Venn diagram or start listing state and federal laws! (Not really, sounds tedious.)

I know people who have a range of beliefs going from- “The government wants to eradicate peyote. Always have and always will.”- to- “The government is trying to protect indigenous sovereignty and the species itself by making peyote a Schedule I substance and requiring quantum Indian blood for its religious use.”

I don’t give credence to either of those opinions. But I do think a lot about how the policies as they’ve been, end up being counterproductive. Ok, toss me a line, I’m going in!

Although there have been historical accounts of peyote eradication efforts both individually conducted and policy based, I am limiting my evaluation to current policies, not those in the historical records. Likewise there has been persecution of peyote people that we have accounts of beginning at about 15 minutes from the moment Cortes waded ashore in the Americas. But we’ll leave the past out of this as I’ve got other things to do and you really don’t want to end up hearing my excellently narrated Mexican prison and American jail stories. (Pro tip- if you have to go to jail, you want it to happen in Mexico. More humane, less expensive to get out of.)

First, the situation is that federal law prohibits creating more peyote; even where it occurs naturally, even by owners of land where it grows, also by distributors licensed to harvest, and also by members of the Native American Church. Cultivation, propagation, and germination from seed of peyote is considered as “manufacture of a controlled substance” and well, let’s just leave it at this is all kinds of ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s the government’s job to conserve peyote, but since “they” issue the licenses for its harvest, distribution, and sale, you could say that it’s a regulatory policy 100% guaranteed to reduce the amount of medicine in existence from one year to the next.

The above is made more problematic when you add the expansive destruction of habitat which takes place every year. Less land where peyote grows equals less land available for harvest, aggravated by smaller plants in more numerous amounts being taken to meet increasing demand. (See my previous discussion where the mechanics of why the more difficult it is to find, the more medicine ends up being harvested before it’s ready is explained.)

Second, there’s an assortment of state laws, a few of which imply that cultivation for religious purposes is exempt from prosecution. The majority however, prohibit peyote cultivation, their particular (or lack of) provisions for religious use notwithstanding. So this is the next tier of prohibition of cultivation of medicine in the US.

Mexico and Canada are different cases. In Mexico peyote is generally protected for indigenous use but laws prohibiting cultivation are also in effect and I’m not sure who leads in that dance. Canada has no such prohibition regarding cultivating, possessing, selling, or giving a peyote plant to every friend you know. And yet there’s no peyote blackmarket or abuse syndrome in Canada. (or here) There’s also no significant conservation program there although many NAC members and random cactus enthusiasts do maintain medicine gardens.

The next tier of policy which affects how much or little peyote grows in this world is the new trend of decriminalization of nature laws. Your Lorax correspondent had probably too much to say on this subject previously so I won’t continue that here. But the gist of it is that there are people who pray with medicine who don’t think peyote cultivation should be allowed and there are others who do.

So when I do the math on this, I come up with… That’s right, there’s no current regulatory pathway leading to more medicine rather than less. Don’t get me wrong, in spite of this there are groups and individuals doing their best by either propagating from cuttings, growing seeds, or repatriating plants from a threatened or insecure location. That’s all good. But what I am talking about is that the laws as specifically, ambiguously, or contrarily written, have an aggregate negative effect on conservation policy. It begins with the lack of recognition that a problem exists, continues with the subsequent lack of interest in altering policy, and results in a lack of inertia and splintering of purpose by which conservationists can effect a foreseeable solution.

The federal government isn’t just going to decide hey oops, let’s change the laws we said were so great, turn this thing around, and order 250,000 sparrows overnight delivery! Oh wait I mean peyotes heh, pardon me.

To be clear, there is a process through which an individual or organization may apply to the DEA for a license to manufacture and/or distribute peyote. That is also the case for every substance listed in the Controlled Substances Act. These applications are made and a limited number of licenses are issued pertaining to peyote, but this is done either for the purpose of research or distribution and the latter is a direct pipeline of medicine being extracted from an already severely threatened landscape.

So what remains for discussion here, other than the economic factors negatively pressuring wild populations previously discussed in earlier postings, is whether or not allowing the general public to cultivate peyote has an effect, negative or positive, on peyote conservation efforts. My opinion is… no they don’t.

First, access and acquisition in the peyote gardens by unauthorized individuals is already prohibited and will remain so. Texas dealers are not allowed to sell without proper documentation which specifies the particulars of purchasers that includes chapter information as tracked by DEA records. So the idea that, if decrim laws allow cultivation, VW vans full of hippies will be traveling to Texas to buy or pick peyote is not only unlikely, it just is not going to happen. And at the very least, random people cultivating peyote from seed for example, however uninformed, unenlightend, unspiritual, or un-native they may be are never going to exacerbate the peyote crisis.

On the flip side, people growing gardens at home who are able to access seeds online or elsewhere, can never put a positive dent in a conservation process which involves coordination, genetic lineage sequestering, and other conservational science standards of some sophistication.

This effort requires specialization of knowledge, respect for culture and spiritual tradition, and cooperative relationships between NAC groups, landowners, and multi-jurisdictional regulatory agencies. Also, a prayerful foundation and attitude. Not just any, and no single group or person can accomplish this. It will require cooperation along with years of focus and perseverance to create a multi-generational, long term positive outcome.

So really, what it makes me wonder is, what is the logic behind certain well meaning interests when lobbying lawmakers to specifically include continued language in these decrim laws which keep the possession or cultivation of peyote as a criminal offense? I am left with only their concern for protecting traditional ways, trying to prevent peyote “abuse”, and the belief that this medicine is only meant or allowed for use by enrolled tribal members. I understand that. I do not agree 100% across the board with purely racial typecasting of spiritual privilege, as I think I’ve made clear in these pages. But I understand the intentions.

But as in 20th century China, the road to scarcity may be paved with good intentions. I don’t know. I’m not all seeing and knowing. I’m just a fuzzy mustachioed creature who lives in the desert and speaks with medicine. But what I’m suggesting is this:

If we really want to conserve medicine let’s unify the agreement that something needs to be done. (I think we’re there now.) Let us get a handle on getting growing new medicine in a good way in preparation for planting out in natural conditions, secure those natural conditions, and look for the most effective way to conserve the medicine still remaining in threatened habitat.

I submit to you that if there’s any political solution at all able to make any difference in the plight of peyote, it is not in the house of cards language of the controllers who play games with people’s lives, arresting them for growing or possessing this plant or that- regardless of how special the plant is to us… The only real help government can be to this cause is in STOPPING THE WHOLESALE DESTRUCTION OF THE MEDICINE THAT ALREADY EXISTS!

Excuse me, I did not mean to yell. I apologize. But I do mean to point out the discrepancy in the energy expended in discussing and writing peyote prohibitions for decrim bills versus stopping root plows and scrapers from destroying tens of thousands of plants annually. Private landownership is a tricky thing when it comes to messing with vulnerable species management or destruction. In the instance of the medicine, the destruction amounts to desecration.

I am hoping to have an expert or two give opinion on these pages as to whether one of the ways forward may be to raise the federal status of peyote from vulnerable or threatened, to endangered. Would this produce negative issues by unintended policy incompetency effect? This needs to be opened to discussion in my opinion.

I’m also not suddenly saying hey, let the government safeguard the medicine. I’m saying this status change might potentially allow pressure on ranchers to cease with the “land conversion” which is really and actually best described as cultural theft.

Addressing this area could be a major turn in the history books regarding peyote as the future unfolds. And I don’t know, maybe, just maybe, the idea that there will be more medicine if we stop people from growing it, is more like preventing sparrows from eating ultimately meaningless amounts of rice than we would think to imagine.

For the sake of ourselves and our coming generations oh Creator, I ask you to protect us, guide us, and allow us to be as one in this prayer to continue the blessing of our sacred peyote that grows upon the earth. Forgive our ignorance and our misunderstandings. Bless the lands where the medicine grows, and the people who provide for and safeguard these ways. Thank you!

Click below for next post:

Planting Seed Is The Opposite Of A Funeral

One response to “Let Them Eat Cake”

  1. Please keep posting, these are great entries and I’m very interested in what else you will write. Peyote conservation really is about many groups and many people with similar goals- most importantly making sure there is medicine in the ground forever. Every day there are forces destroying habitat and some other force needs to be working in the other direction putting more back . Keeping it the way it was, ThanksLeo for your contributions


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