BOSTON --For John Halpern to study the effects of peyote on American Indians who use the hallucinogenic cactus in religious ceremonies, observing from a distance was not an option.
Halpern lived on the Navajo Nation reservation for months at a time and participated in prayer ceremonies. Earning their trust and cooperation would have been impossible if he refused to ingest peyote, he said.
"It never would have happened if I hadn't done that. It's one of the ways they take the measure of a man," said Halpern, a psychiatrist at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, just outside of Boston.
A 1994 federal law allows roughly 300,000 members of the Native American Church to use peyote as a religious sacrament, but Halpern set out to find scientific proof for the Navajos' belief that the substance is not hazardous to their health.
After five years of research, Halpern and other McLean researchers did not find any evidence of brain damage or psychological problems in church members who frequently use peyote, which contains the hallucinogen mescaline.
In fact, they found that members of the Native American Church performed better on some of the neuropsychological tests than other Navajos who do not regularly use peyote.
Church members believe peyote offers them spiritual and physical healing, but Halpern and his colleagues could not say with any certainty that its pharmacological effects are responsible for their test results.
"It's hard to know how much of it is the sense of community they get (from the religion) and how much of it is the actual experience of using the medication itself," said Harrison Pope, the study's senior author and director of McLean's biological psychology laboratory.
Test results for 61 church members who have used peyote at least 100 times were compared against those for 79 Navajos who do not regularly use peyote and 36 tribe members with a history of alcohol abuse but minimal peyote use. Those who had abused alcohol fared worse on the tests than the church members, according to the study.
The researchers argue that their findings should offer "reassurance" to the 10,000 Native American Church members serving in the military who were barred from using peyote before new guidelines were adopted in 1997.
"We find no evidence that a history of peyote use would compromise the psychological or cognitive abilities of these individuals," they wrote in a paper published in the Nov. 4 issue of Biological Psychiatry.
The researchers are quick to note that their study draws a clear distinction between illicit and religious use of peyote. And they did not rule out the possibility that other hallucinogens, such as LSD, may be harmful.
"In comparison to LSD, mescaline is described as more sensual and perceptual and less altering of thought and sense of self," they wrote, adding that peyote does not seem to produce "flashbacks" the same way that LSD apparently does.
However, the researchers are optimistic that their findings could open the door to another area of research: testing the theory that peyote could be an effective treatment for alcoholism.
"It's an anecdote you hear from the Navajo themselves but something that has never been formally tested in any fashion," Pope said.
Halpern settled on members of the Native American Church as ideal subjects for his research because they have had little or no exposure to other drugs. But he met with stiff resistance when he first visited the Navajo reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
"These are very proud peoples, and many of them are smarting over the stigmatizing cliche about (American Indians') substance abuse," he said. "It's a real problem, but it's a real problem in many communities."
Halpern found an ally on the reservation in Victor Clyde, who was a vice president of the Native American Church of Navajoland. Clyde persuaded skeptical church members to cooperate with Halpern.
"A lot of members did not want to allow him to do the research," said Clyde, a justice of the peace in Chinle, Ariz. "No one wants to be put under the microscope like that."
The project was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A NIDA spokeswoman would not comment on the study.
Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor who was not involved in Halpern's research, said the study lends scientific weight to a long-held belief that peyote is not harmful.
"The thing that excites me most about the paper is that the study was actually done," he said. "The U.S. government -- and NIDA, in particular -- has been rather balky about allowing studies of psychedelic drugs of any kind.
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