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By Dr. Robert Bergman
Several states have passed laws against possession and use of peyote. However, very little evidence has been reported on this subject...My familiarity with the Native American Church has resulted from the day- to-day work of the mental health program on the Navajo area of the Indian Health Service working with the 125,000 Navajo Indians, the largest tribe in the United States...We provide consultation to many community organizations, including the Native American Church. As a result, we seem to have good success in case finding, and in general there is little reluctance to refer cases to us. Nevertheless, we have seen almost no acute or chronic emotional disturbance arising from peyote use.
For a period of four years we have followed up every report of psychotic or other psychiatric episodes said to have arisen from peyote use. There have been about 40 to 50 such reports, most of which were hearsay that could never be traced to a particular case. Some have been based on a physician's belief that Navajo people use peyote and that if a particular person became disturbed it must have been for this reason. There has been one relatively clear-cut case of acute psychosis and four cases that are difficult to interpret. (The "acute psychosis" occurred when a Navajo man attended a peyote meeting after drinking alcohol-Ed.) Assuming that all five of our cases represent true reactions to peyote and that we hear about half of the cases occurring, the resulting probably over-estimated rate would be approximately one bad reaction per 70,000 ingestions...This rate is much lower than others that have been reported for the use of hallucinogenic agents.
We have seen many patients come through difficult crises with the help of this religion. The Peyotists themselves are proud in particular of the help the church has been to Indian people who have drinking problems. In fact, Levy and Kunitz (1970) report a greater success rate for the Peyotists than for any other agency working with alcoholics in one part of the Navajo reservation.
--Dr. Robert Bergman, Chief U.S. Public Health Service Navajo Reservation, Arizona
Discussion: I concur in all that Dr. Robert Bergman has said. I see the legal persecution that keeps cropping up as typical of the reactionary regression of the day...Peyote is not harmful to these people; it is beneficial, comforting, inspiring, and appears to be spiritually nourishing. It is a better antidote to alcohol than anything the missionaries, the white man, the American Medical Association, and the public health services have come up with. It is understandable that these organizations should be a bit envious of the success of this...natural native remedy.
--Dr. Karl A. Menninger Topeka, Kansas
From material contributed to the Library by Tom Leonard, a member and director of the Ponca Chapter of the Native American Church of Oklahoma.
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