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Military to allow American Indians in Armed Service to use peyote

April 16, 1997

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ American Indian soldiers will be allowed to take the hallucinogenic plant peyote as part of their religious ceremonies under new guidelines adopted by the military.

The announcement Tuesday ends years of pain for Marine Staff Sgt. Shawn Arnold, who said he had been told not to practice his faith.

``I wake up every morning, and I don’t have that full feeling of freedom because I have to consider that hey, anytime, it could be this day that they decide to prosecute me,″ said Arnold, 38, a platoon leader at the Quantico, Va., Marine base.

Arnold, who hails from the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, N.M., said he had twice been threatened with court-martial because of his religion.

Peyote is a small cactus with psychedelic properties that grows naturally in southern Texas. While it’s illegal for most people, federal law permits peyote use by the 250,000 Native American Church members.

The theology centers on the belief that peyote brings peace of mind, helps people think good thoughts and heals illnesses if one sincerely believes and concentrates.

The change in policy was hailed by Frank Dayish, president of the Native American Church of North America.

``This opens some doors for our church, and it marks the first sanctioned use of a hallucinogen by members of the armed forces,″ Dayish said.

The new peyote policy applies to any of the 9,262 American Indians in the service _ 0.6 percent of the military population _ who use the drug to follow their faith.

``If they’re using peyote in their religious practice, it’s a sacrament, not a drug, just as sacramental wine is not considered a drug,″ said Air Force Maj. Monica Aloisio, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

The policy change stems from the 1994 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which allows Indians to use peyote as religious sacrament. The Department of Defense began rewriting its guidelines last year.

The new guidelines are still in draft form. They allow American Indians who wish to enlist to answer ``No″ when asked if they have ever used drugs.

Peyote is usually eaten but can be smoked. It causes sweating, heightened attention, wakefulness and _ sometimes, but not always _ hallucinatory visions.

Only enrolled members of Indian tribes may use peyote, the guidelines say. It may not be used, possessed or brought aboard military vehicles, vessels, aircraft or onto military installations without permission of the installation commander.

Chaplain Capt. Mel Ferguson, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplain’s Board, said he’s giving chaplains a verbal go-ahead to let American Indians use peyote in religious services while the guidelines are being finalized.

``When people are allowed to practice their faith and nourish the spiritual dimension of their lives, that promotes and enhances military readiness,″ Ferguson said.

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