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For thousands of years, Native Americans have thought of the puffy cactus as a divine sacrament. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has a different view of peyote. ''[T]he full spectrum of effects,'' declares a DEA website, "served as a chemically induced model of mental illness.''
A Nov. 4 study by researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital contradicted the DEA, finding that peyote use by Native Americans in religious ceremonies is not cognitively harmful, and may even have psychological benefits. Indigenous peoples have long used natural substances as medicines and religious sacraments. Some of these substances -- such as coffee and chocolate -- have been embraced by Western societies, while others, such as coca and peyote, have been condemned. This new study by Harvard researchers lends weight to the argument that what's condemned is about politics and stigmatization rather than health. What native peoples say empowers them has too often been labeled as hazardous, while what enriches Western societies is branded as beneficial.
Peyote is a good example. A 1970 bulletin written by Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime notes that the Spanish who conquered Mexico began prohibiting peyote as early as the 1500s because it was considered pagan, not because it was harmful. In the last century, U.S. authorities' efforts to make peyote illegal focused on the supposed harmful effects, saying that ignorant indigenous people couldn't be trusted to act in their own behalf. A 1995 federal law legalized peyote for native religious ceremonies, though it's still illegal in other settings.
The stigmatization of peyote, though, has long kept researchers from investigating what could be beneficial uses. Ironically, peyote is considered by native peoples to be a treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse. Researcher John Halpern, lead author of the new study, now hopes to be able to test that hypothesis.
Recently, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston also found evidence that ginkgo -- traditionally used by Chinese communities as medicine -- may help lower a woman's risk of ovarian cancer. Ancestral communities' wisdom is being valued more in the world of U.S. science. But it doesn't seem to be happening in the U.S. political sphere.
Beyond peyote, an even clearer case of politics trumping cultural tradition can be found in Bolivia, where indigenous people have long chafed under U.S. drug policies that destroy their coca crops. Coca leaves are considered sacred by a number of Bolivian indigenous groups that have chewed them as part of their rituals and brewed a medicinal tea from them to ward off mountain sickness.
The U.S. government decided that Bolivian coca plants should be destroyed because someone -- not a Bolivian native -- found a way to process the coca leaves into cocaine. U.S. authorities didn't take seriously enough the deep cultural dimensions of coca use among indigenous communities. As a result, the indigenous population has organized itself -- as never before in Bolivian history -- driven out two presidents and launched the presidential candidacy of an indigenous leader, Evo Morales. He is head of the national coca growers' union and, according to polls, likely the next president of Bolivia.
''A big part of the tensions are the result of the lack of communication between those who design the policies and those who suffer the consequences of the destruction of coca crops,'' Morales told me months ago. Washington is not welcoming the prospect of Morales winning the Dec. 18 presidential election. He once vowed to close down the DEA offices in Bolivia if elected and has recently said that he will not protect U.S. interests. Instead he will strengthen ties with China.
Bad blood with Bolivia could have been avoided if U.S. officials had made an effort to understand the indigenous culture. It's time for politics to catch up with science.
María Cristina Caballero is a fellow at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.