Peyote Defendant Strikes Plea Deal

Peyote Defendant Strikes Plea Deal

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A Weber County man, one of three Utahns charged with peyote distribution despite their claims of a Native American Church exemption, has struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Nicholas Walter Stark pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Thursday to a single count of possessing cocoa leaves. Sentencing was set for March 27. The maximum sentence is one year in prison.

In exchange for his plea, federal prosecutors agreed to dismissal of two counts of peyote distribution.

The federal peyote charges were brought last summer against Stark and James and Linda Mooney, founders of the Oklevueha EarthWalks Native American Church of Utah in Benjamin, after similar state charges against the Mooneys were struck down by the Utah Supreme Court.

Stark and the Mooneys were accused of distributing peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, to members of their church who were not members of a federally recognized tribe. The government allows limited use of peyote for Native American religious ceremonies by members of federally recognized tribes.

Stark contended he was one-quarter Iroquois, but he did not have a tribal card.

Federal officials are not saying if Stark has agreed to testify against the Mooneys.

James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney claims his use of peyote is constitutionally protected under religious freedom.

However, federal dispute that argument and also contend that Mooney cannot prove that he is a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe.

The Utah Supreme Court ruling last year concerned a state law that was not identical to federal law.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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