SALT LAKE CITY, July 28 (AP)--Leaders of the Native American Church have asked state investigators to hand over 3,500 peyote buttons seized during an investigation.

Nick Stark, who says he is a medicine man in the Oklevueha Earth Walks chapter of the Native American Church, had the buttons before police confiscated them July 8.

Stark said that as a spiritual leader, he is entitled to use and share the hallucinogenic plant. However, other Native American Church members claim he is an impostor.

Weber County police and prosecutors, investigating Stark for possible drug distribution charges, could destroy the peyote if a court rules Stark had them illegally.

Indian leaders opposed destroying the peyote, which is eaten and used to brew a tea during religious ceremonies in the church.

"It is so sacred, so precious to us," said Johnny Blackhorse, president of A Shii-Be-To chapter of the Native American Church in Salt Lake City. "We call it 'Mother Peyote' because that is how we feel about it. If somebody damages it, it would be like somebody hurting your mother."

Peyote is a hallucinogenic cactus that grows in the limestone soils of the Chihuahuan desert in Mexico. For generations, American Indians have considered it integral to traditional religious ceremonies.

Under federal law, use of peyote during ceremonies in traditional American Indian religions is lawful.

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