Congress' 1978 passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act doesn't protect Peyote Way from federal law enforcement because it's not affiliated with the Native American Church. This law has been challenged several times (including by Peyote Way) based on the free-exercise clause in the First Amendment, but the courts have struck down each attempt.

Peyote Way is able to avoid prosecution mainly because Arizona is one of six states where the use of peyote for bona fide religious purposes has been legalized without deference to race — meaning individuals don't need to be part of the Native American Church to legally take the drug for religious reasons.

According to the nonprofit organization Erowid, which specializes in documenting the use and effects of psychoactive plants and chemicals, only Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico, Nevada, Minnesota, and Colorado have such exceptions.

Peyote Way Church founder Immanuel Trujillo as a young man.
Courtesy of The Peyote Way Church of God
Peyote Way Church founder Immanuel Trujillo as a young man.
Timothy Leary, photographed in 1989 in Los Angeles.
Wikimedia Commons/Philip H. Bailey
Timothy Leary, photographed in 1989 in Los Angeles.

Arizona's revised statute, Title 13-3402, states: "A person who knowingly possesses, sells, transfers, or offers to sell or transfer peyote is guilty of a class-six felony. In a prosecution for violation of this section, it is a defense that the peyote is being used or is intended for use: In connection with the bona fide practice of a religious belief, as an integral part of a religious exercise, and in a manner not dangerous to public health, safety, or morals."

Still, there's much controversy surrounding the legality of taking peyote, and if federal authorities wanted to prosecute Peyote Way for its use, cultivation, and distribution of the plant, they probably could make a case. Peyote Way Church technically is in violation of federal law, as neither Kent nor Zapf is Native American. Special Agent Sanchez, however, deferred to local and state authorities when asked about Peyote Way, suggesting that the DEA has taken a hands-off approach regarding peyote use, in the same way the Obama Administration recently has backed off going after medical-marijuana distribution in states including Arizona.

Any possibility of prosecution never deterred Kent and Zapf from pursuing their church's mission or deterred people from making the trek out into the desert wilderness of Aravaipa to experience the effects of the hallucinogen.

Kent makes clear that the church doesn't sell peyote, and he says the plants it grows on the property never leave it.

"As far as the state of Arizona is concerned, they understand that in order for us to practice our religion, we need our sacrament," he says. "The feds aren't going to sell it to us so we grow our own."

The DEA licenses a small number of peyote distributors who must be authorized annually to cultivate and sell the plant.

"These distributors are permitted to sell peyote to the [Native American Church] and its members for traditional religious rites," Sanchez says. "There are a handful of distributors in the Southwest region."

Instead of Native American Church principles, Kent and Zapf's church uses a tenet of the Mormon religion to justify peyote as a sacrament.

Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants of Joseph Smith, also known as the "Word of Wisdom," states in part: "Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving."

States Peyote Way's website: "Adherence to a dietary discipline, like the one suggested in the Word of Wisdom, goes hand in hand with the spiritual awakening produced by the Holy Sacrament Peyote."

Kent and Zapf think their 35-year relationship with Graham County Sheriff Preston J. Allred has helped smooth the way for the church.

When they were selling Mana Pottery to Goldwater's, the couple would take chipped pieces to the courthouse in Safford, their intent to give it away.

"The secretaries would give us $10, and the deputies would [give] a little less," Kent says with a laugh, adding, "They saw that whatever we were up to, it wasn't criminal or dangerous."

But being out of sight, out of mind is the biggest reason that the church has avoided hassle from the authorities over the years. From Phoenix, it's a four-hour drive east on U.S. 60, past Superior and Globe, and onward to U.S. 70. Twenty-five miles of washboard dirt road outside Safford lead to a remote area of desert wilderness. A large red mailbox — painted with the word "Mana" — alerts visitors that they've arrived.

"You don't need to worry . . . about your neighbors. They've all got plenty of property," Kent says. "They think we're kind of strange, but cowboys are kind of strange, too."

Kent's tour of the church takes about three hours. Outside, near one of the campsites, the large blond man is chopping wood for his spirit walk. He pauses just long enough to wave and smile.

Asked what kind of future is in store for Peyote Way, Kent — as with his lengthy explanation about Trujillo's life and the spiritual importance of peyote — has a rehearsed answer.

His greatest hope is that someday, he and Zapf can grow peyote legally and educate others about how to grow it.

"When we plant peyote, I'm not thinking of personal ingestion, I'm thinking about my grandkids," Kent says. "I think that's pretty healthy to think in big chunks of time — 20, 40, 60 years. If we thought that way about our planning for society, then we might not be having so many of the problems we're having now."

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hurricaneric moderator

Here's a Letter to the Editor we received from Peyote Way Church:

1. Carlos Castenada’s work has long been regarded as fiction by scholars. For more accurate and scientific information about peyote’s alkaloids, please consult MAPS or EROWID, or Edward Anderson’s Peyote the Divine Cactus.

2. No one is getting rich off Peyote. The holy sacrament Peyote is not for sale at the Peyote Way Church. The gross income listed in the article does not reflect the taxes paid by Mana pottery, or the cost of upkeep for buildings, vehicles that wear out quickly on the rough roads, or minimal salaries for minimal staff. Our records are available upon request
3. The church is tolerated and even admired by many of its Mormon and non-Mormon neighbors. Mormons tend to know a thing or two about religious persecution and do not tend to practice it. The many other friends of the church, in and out of Graham County public office, will go unnamed, but we know who you are and appreciate your kindness, acceptance, and often support over the decades.
4. When Immanuel and his associates purchased the land in Aravaipa, it was not in foreclosure. It was Immanuel who was often battling foreclosure to hold this beautiful 160 acres as a sanctuary for all race Peyotism.
5. Membership is not a one time fee, but an annual donation. We, like all other non profit organizations, depend on membership support.
6. To a person who considers Peyote a Holy Sacrament it is painful to hear it described as a hallucinogen. We consider the word hallucinogen to be a pejorative. It is an inaccurate term that has been used since the 50’s and 60’s to denigrate the Peyote experience and not an accurate description.
7. The establishment of discriminatory Peyote laws that limit Peyote use strictly to Native American members of the Native American Church, while prohibiting these same people from cultivating their holy sacrament, is a threat to the survival of this sacred plant.

Rev. Anne L Zapf, Apostle, with approval of the Peyote Way Church of God Board of Stewards


It's difficult not to quickly judge these individuals as peyote, a healing medicine to our Native peoples, has provided psychological benefits through mind-body connections. It's not surprising that non-natives have embraced this herb to heal PTSD and other ailments in their quest for spiritual enlightenment. In the early years (1950s and 1960s) the Native Americans fought unwaveringly to legalize the possession/use of this healing herb. The result is the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This non-profit group should follow the same suite in all fairness.

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