Nearly two years after Santa Cruz became the second California city—and the third in the U.S.—to decriminalize a broad range of psychedelic plants and fungi, the City Council has rolled back the law’s provision on peyote, effectively recriminalizing the cactus.
Local lawmakers voted at a meeting last month to remove peyote and other mescaline-containing cacti from the municipality’s decriminalization policy, citing pushback from Indigenous people who consider the plant sacred.
Groups such as the National Council of Native American Churches, which uses peyote ceremonially, have been urging activists and lawmakers not to include peyote on lists of allowed plants and fungi. The group said in a letter last year that the cactus should be “preserved for utilization by and for Indigenous peoples.”
Even Decriminalize Santa Cruz (DSC), which helped pass the original measure that included peyote, released a statement in which the group apologized “for our lack of cultural sensitivity surrounding the Peyote cacti (Lophophora williamsii) and discounting Indigenous consultation in the process of decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi.”
DSC said it originally included peyote on the list of decriminalized drugs because they copied verbatim an Oakland ordinance that was put forward by Decriminalize Nature Oakland (DNO). “We were insular in our activism and did not consider the harm we may cause to Indigenous communities who have been using this sacred plant for millennia,” the group wrote.
“Fundamentally, DSC’s intention is to do no harm and to protect others from harm,” members said in the public letter. “We recognize that the inclusion of the Peyote cacti in our resolution is dangerous because it may contribute to the ongoing Peyote crisis in the sacred gardens of South Texas for generations to come.”
Peyote matures slowly and is currently categorized by conservationists as “vulnerable” after an uptick in illicit harvesting as use becomes more mainstream. The cactus, native to Mexico and parts of the American Southwest, has no federal protection in the U.S., while in Mexico it can be harvested legally only by Indigenous groups.
The change in Santa Cruz removes peyote from the city’s list of decriminalized substances along with “other entheogenic cacti that contain phenethylamine compounds such as mescaline.”
Although the revisions to the resolution were ultimately adopted unanimously, not all members of the City Council were eager to push through the change. Councilmember Justin Cummings, who worked with advocates to help pass the original measure, suggested the Council wait on approving the change until more community members could weigh in.
Councilmembers Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Martine Watkins replied that Indigenous groups had indicated to them that the change should be made sooner rather than later.
“I was reached out [to] by members in the community, and there was a request to move this forward urgently,” Kalantari-Johnson said. “The Tribal community were really challenged with how the resolution was adopted in the past, and there was a sense of urgency to move this through pretty quickly.”
“They’ve provided extensive feedback,” the councilmember added, “and we’ve taken that feedback into what you see before you.”
Councilmember Sandy Brown called for more input from stakeholders, but ultimately voted in favor of the change.
“When I bring items similar to this, where I’ve been working with community groups, I’ve been told, ‘Well, we didn’t hear anything about it, and we need to learn more.'” And this is a case where that is true to me… I think it’s fair to ask for a continuation until our next meeting, at least, so we can have some of those conversations with folks in our community.”
The Council didn’t wait, however, ultimately approving the change without considering proposed amendments from Cummings. “We already kind of did the legwork, essentially, to have some of the key folks have eyes on this,” said Watkins.
Cummings, who hesitantly supported the change when it finally came to a vote, said he was “disappointed we couldn’t work together productively.”
Whether to include peyote in decriminalization policies is an ongoing controversy in the psychedelics community, dividing groups that once worked together on drug reform.
Carlos Plazola, the chair of Decriminalize Nature National, criticized the change.
“It is unfortunate that the Santa Cruz City Council has taken a position to recriminalize not only peyote cultivation, but all cacti which contain mescaline,” he told Marijuana Moment by email. The change, he argued, will “increase the likelihood of peyote going extinct in the endemic habitats, as well as increasing the potential of arrests for possessing common household plants such as San Pedro and Peruvian torch cacti.”
Larry Norris, who co-founded Decriminalize Nature with Plazola, explained that the Santa Cruz City Council’s change seems to inadvertently criminalize other widely-grown cactus species in California, such as the San Pedro cactus, which also contains mescaline. While growing San Pedro cactuses is generally allowed for ornamental purposes, it’s illegal to cultivate for consumption.
Plazola also told Marijuana Moment that Decriminalize Nature National intends to oppose a similar carveout in Seattle, where the City Council is set to consider a resolution on Monday that would decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi with the exception of peyote.
Photo courtesy of zapdelight