By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
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Inside a small greenhouse at Peyote Way, thousands of button-size cacti cover the room's dirt floor like a rumpled green carpet. Kent estimates there are 8,000 to 10,000 individual plants ranging in age from 10 to 100 years old. It's hard to imagine that each of the fragile-looking plants represents, technically, a felony to cultivate, distribute or consume it.
Because the DEA classifies peyote as a schedule I drug (along with LSD, heroin, ecstasy, even marijuana), the penalty for "unlawful distribution, possession, or intent to distribute" any amount could result in up to a $10 million fine and 30 years in prison, although this rarely happens.
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. That 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 in which 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.
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 are Native Americans. Special Agent Ramona Sanchez with the Phoenix division of the DEA, however, deferred to local and state authorities when asked about Peyote Way, suggesting 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.
Any inherent possibility of prosecution never deterred Kent and Zapf from pursuing their church's mission or kept people from making the trek 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 tenant 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."
According to 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, with the intent of giving them away. "The secretaries would give us $10, and the deputies would [give] a little less," Kent says with a laugh. "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 it's avoided hassle from the authorities through the years. From Phoenix, it's a four-hour drive east. 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 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."
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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.