On Sunday, April 24, student-athletes, coaches, and parents gathered in Silloway Gymnasium to hear three expert panelists discuss the relevant issues pertaining to the impact of taking synthetic drugs. The Athletic Advisory Council and the Department of Athletics sponsored the event. The symposium was mandatory for all student-athletes not graduating at the conclusion of the academic year. After a series of drug incidents on the University’s campus over the past two years, some of which directly involved student-athletes, Athletic Director Mike Whalen ’83 made the decision to organize the symposium, which was called “Synthetic Drug Use and the Student-Athlete: Fake Substances-Real Dangers.”

“As Director of Athletics, I wanted to do my part in making sure student-athletes have as many facts available to them when making decisions regarding synthetic drugs,” Whalen said. “The goal of the symposium was to educate student-athletes of the impact synthetic drugs can have on one’s mind, body, and future.”

Last month, a University football player pled guilty to one count of possession with the intent to distribute as well as to the distribution of a synthetic hallucinogen closely resembling ecstasy. A lot of these deals took place in the team’s locker room, where it was reported that 15 to 20 players purchased the drug.

Fourteen months ago, Middletown Police arrested two University football players on drug-related charges of possession with the intent to sell and possession of less than four ounces of a controlled substance. One was charged with the possession of marijuana paraphernalia and the other for the use of drug paraphernalia.

“College students are confronted with difficult decisions every day and with those decisions come consequences,” Whalen said. “Because I expect student-athletes to be leaders both on the field and in the campus community, and I believe life lessons learned through athletics add to the value of a residential university, I regularly look for programming opportunities that will enhance a student’s overall experience at Wesleyan.”

While the symposium did accomplish the goal of providing insight into substance control, not all students in attendance found the talk entirely encouraging.

“The panelists told the student-athletes not to be in possession of any type of drug because if you get caught, you get the right of being a citizen taken away,” said Ali Imperiale ’19. “You can’t work at specific places, can’t vote in some states, can’t be a coach, can’t adopt, etc.”

The first panelist was Brian Kelly P ’17, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Chief of Public Corruption and Special Prosecutions. The second was the Honorable Matthew Nestor ’87, P ’20, a first justice for the Chelsea District Court in Suffolk County, Mass. The final member was Dr. Michael Canarie ’83, a doctor working in a pediatrics intensive care unit and teaching at Yale University School of Medicine.

Anthony Antonellis ’86, P ’15, P ’17, a former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and Navy JAG Officer, moderated the event.

“If I could have changed something, I would have questioned the choice to limit the diversity of the panel,” Nat Warner ’17 said. “Though, to be clear, the speakers did communicate a very worthwhile message.”

Kelly spoke about litigation concerning synthetic drugs, as he currently specializes in a white-collar crime unit. He explained the differences of a federal crime versus a state crime.

“Possessing drugs is a misdemeanor, distributing or delivering drugs is a federal crime, and small possession amounts are often dealt with through the state,” he said.

Kelly shared a personal story where a girl’s boyfriend was dealing cocaine, and she got arrested with him because she made deliveries for him.

“You’re all targets and the FBI has Wesleyan on their radar because of past incidents,” Kelly said.

Nester, who was a captain of the football team at the University, also worked in a white-collar crime unit as a chief security officer before becoming a judge. He discussed the difficulties of getting a crime expunged from your personal record.

“It can come back to bite you because you can’t expunge the record and jobs will see this and find out all about your past,” he said. “Once convicted of a felony, it affects every aspect of your life. It destroys relationships and families. This will make getting into graduate school very hard and can stop you from getting financial aid. You can also be denied a license to operate an ice cream truck or restrict your right to vote.”

One student at the symposium posed an intriguing question.

“Do you think it’s just to take away a citizens’ rights after they have had the chance to reflect for many years in jail for a misdemeanor and won’t ever be in possession of drugs again?” the student said.

The panelists all responded in a similar matter, stating that while they may not approve of the system, it must be obeyed, because it is not changing anytime soon.

It was definitely hammered home by the two men in law enforcement that although the system may not be fair, it is not worth fighting against, and if you get caught, you are throwing a large portion of your life away.

“I think it was biased that most of the panelists actively partake in the judicial system,” Imperiale said. “I thought their answers were hypocritical. You don’t agree with the system but yet we should obey it. If you look at the race statistic for people who are incarcerated, a majority of these individuals are not white, so by taking more minority citizens’ rights away, we are furthering the gap between the elite and the marginalized.”

Canarie talked about the side effects of synthetic drugs.

“As consumers, we don’t know what substances we’re getting involved in and where these substances have been,” he said.

These sentiments are definitely relevant to the incident at the University last winter that saw 11 students overdose on a laced strain of MDMA. Five students were arrested as a result of the incident.

The medical effects of ingesting synthetic drugs were also a point of emphasis for Canarie.

“Synthetic drugs can lead to psychosis, and this is something that most consumers would not even realize,” he said. “Overdosing on these drugs are much more dangerous than overdrinking alcohol because alcohol is predictable, while synthetic drugs are much less so.”

The symposium definitely had some mixed reviews, but it is not up for debate that the intentions of creating the event were purely positive.

“There were parts of the program that undermined what it wanted to accomplish, like when one speaker mocked Bystander Intervention Training in an apparent effort to seem relatable; but, on the whole, it promoted a noble, meaningful message,” Warner said.

Those involved with the symposium hope that this is the first step in limiting the consumption of synthetic drugs, not just among athletes, but also for the entire student body at the University.

“The University administration, coaches, alumni and parents are committed in doing everything possible to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our students,” Whalen said. “The decision of the alumni and parent panelists, in traveling on a Sunday afternoon to participate on our panel, is testament to that commitment. If Sunday’s program helps one student make better choices, then I’ll consider this program a success.”

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