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Peyote Bill Signed


November 1994

On Oct. 6 President Clinton signed into law legislation that guarantees the right of Native Americans to possess, transport, and use peyote in the course of traditional religious ceremonies. H.R. 4230, now public law 103-344, amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (42 U.S.C. 1996, Aug. 11, 1978). The bill passed the Senate on Sept. 27 and passed the House Aug. 8 by a voice vote.

The bill was introduced by Congressman Bill Richardson (D-NM) and garnered bi-partisan support, as well as support from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The law made statutory a policy that had been in a federal regulation and the law in 28 states. The protection of Native American religious use of peyote was jeopardized by the April 17, 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (494 U.S. 872, 1990). The court case was brought by Al Smith and Galen Black, both of Oregon, who were fired from their jobs because they used peyote as part of a Native American Church (NAC) ceremony. When they applied for unemployment insurance, the state refused, giving the reason that drug use is illegal. The Supreme Court ruled that denying benefits because of peyote use was Constitutional, but suggested that Oregon pass a state law protecting the use of the drug in traditional ceremonies.

The federal law is a major victory for Native American rights groups. "It's a great day for members of the Native American Church to finally be able to pray without fear," said Abraham Spotted Elk, president of the Native American Church of Wyoming. The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation provided financial and technical support to the Native American Religious Freedom Project in 1990, and to NAC leader Reuben Snake, a Winnebago from Nebraska.