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Seven years ago, Leo and Raven Mercado grew tired of living in a converted school bus, so they settled down in ranch country near Kearny, a town of 3,000 located about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.
To reach their hideaway, one must cross the Gila River on a rusty suspension bridge, and follow a dusty path that winds through desert scrub to a complex of two deteriorating houses, a dilapidated barn, an Indian-style sweat lodge and exquisitely landscaped cactus gardens. The Mercados live in one house; the other building serves as a guest house and office for Leo's beloved Peyote Foundation, which purports to educate anyone who's interested about the cultivation and conservation of peyote, a cactus that contains the hallucinogen mescaline.
Leo, 38, and Raven, 28, chose to settle in this isolated stretch of the Gila River Valley for two reasons.
First, Leo had grown up in Kearny, and the couple wanted to raise their infant son close to Leo's extended Latino family.
Second, Leo, who had worked in greenhouses and nurseries, figured the climate was well-suited for the cultivation of his beloved cactus--Lophophora williamsii, or peyote.
Leo knew that peyote wasn't native to Kearny, Arizona. It grows naturally in the deserts of northern and central Mexico and in a small belt of arid land that runs along the Texas-Mexico border. Mexican Indians consider it holy "medicine" and have eaten it during prayer ceremonies for at least 2,000 years. The top of the cactus, or button, is harvested from the cactus stem and prayed over, then eaten.
When Spanish priests discovered that peyote-eating natives were difficult to convert to Catholicism, they tried to have it outlawed. For the same reason, missionaries campaigned against peyote when Native Americans imported it into the United States in the mid-19th century and devised their own all-night prayer ceremonies.
It's not the easiest praying in the world. Whether eaten raw or as a powder or as a tea, the peyote button is exceedingly bitter and often induces severe vomiting. Devout peyoteists rarely speak of hallucinations; rather, they comment on the way in which praying while eating the cactus connects them to their God and their own souls.
In purely scientific terms, peyote and LSD have similar effects on the mind, according to Desert Botanical Garden senior research botanist Edward Anderson, who has written a book about peyote. Anderson says the "divine cactus" is not addictive and is about 1,000 times less potent than LSD.
In Arizona, possession and use of peyote is a Class Six Felony unless it is possessed or used for a "bona fide" religious purpose. State law does not mention race. Federal law is more stringent, prohibiting transportation, use or purchase of peyote by all but Native Americans--registered tribal members adhering to a genuine native religious practice.
By the time Leo and Raven Mercado settled down near Kearny, they had been eating peyote for quite some time and claimed they used it for bona fide religious reasons. They figured they were not breaking any state law by ingesting it in their ceremonies.
Leo became so interested in cultivating peyote that he got a job as a nurseryman at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior. Arboretum horticulturists, he figured, would be experts at cultivating cactuses. Leo wanted to expand his knowledge of cactuses in general so he could become a superb peyote cultivator.
That same year, The Cactus and Succulent Journal published a study by Anderson that revealed a shortage of wild peyote in a limited habitat in southwestern Texas. Peyote supplies were dwindling in the very locations where licensed dealers could legally sell the cactus to card-carrying members of the Native American Church. (Most Native American Churches do not issue membership cards to non-Indians.)
From time to time, Leo has claimed to have gotten his peyote from card-carrying church members. He told anyone who would listen that his peyote cultivation was an important ecological experiment. He grew seedlings. He grafted slow-growing peyote onto San Pedro cactuses, which are also hallucinogenic. He planted peyote in greenhouses, and in the shade of mesquite trees.
Soon he had quite an impressive "sacramental garden."
He says he did not intend to grow peyote to sell it, has never sold it, would never sell it. He says he gives peyote to people during church ceremonies. He says he grows it exclusively for religious purposes.
Pinal County officials, who have busted Leo three times, do not agree.
Neither do many Native American Church spiritual leaders.
Leo Mercado himself is an affable fellow who fancies himself as a man with a grand cause, and he sometimes compares his struggles to eat peyote legally to the great causes espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
The natural question, of course, is whether Leo is using his ceremonies as an excuse to get loaded.
He says he isn't. It's all about religion, he insists.
Leo Mercado first began using peyote "sacramentally" in the mid-Eighties, after joining the Peyote Way Church of God, an all-race religious institution located near Safford.
The church, started in 1977, still exists and has about 150 members. Adherents take peyote as a sacrament during individual "Spirit Walks," and also follow Mormon tenets. The Peyote Way Church is not affiliated with any Native American Church, and members eat peyote individually, during vision quests. The church grows its own peyote and has been left alone by Graham County authorities, largely, says one founder, because Arizona's law allows peyoteists to eat the cactus regardless of race as long as there is a bona fide religious reason.