The ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of The New Courier.

Decriminalizing Nature

By Christopher Waide

In May of this year, Denver became the first US city to decriminalize magic mushrooms. Oakland followed suit in June, and decriminalized mushrooms, certain iboga, and visionary cacti. “Decriminalize Nature” is a group that has been pushing for the decriminalization of entheogens across the country, with Santa Cruz and NYC looking to be the next cities to decriminalize psychedelic compounds.

But what exactly are these compounds? Psychedelic substances bind themselves to serotonin receptors in the brain and have been used for spiritual and healing purposes for thousands of years. Aldous Huxley, philosopher and author of works such as “The Doors of Perception”, believed that the human mind acted as a “reducing valve” that constricts conscious awareness. He proposed that hallucinogenic compounds work by inhibiting the filter, which produces psychedelic effects. Studies conducted decades later seem to validate his hypothesis, as brain scans of people under the drug’s effects showed reduced neuron activity in the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex. In other words, psychedelics open the mind up to experiencing things the conscious brain would normally disregard.

Psychedelic compounds were banned in America with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Recreational use was made a crime, and research on the compounds came to a halt, not to be continued for decades. Advocates for the drugs insisted they were safe and claimed that they were banned for their ability to cause civil unrest. Many of the people who “turned on” during the psychedelic revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s became deeply skeptical of government. Terence McKenna, author, lecturer, and perhaps the most well-known advocate for the responsible use of psychedelics was openly critical of the move, stating that psychedelics were only illegal because “they opened you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

Recent studies on psychedelics published by universities probably helped fuel the current push for decriminalization. In fact, it is widely accepted that we are currently in a “psychedelic renaissance.” Much of the misinformation surrounding the compounds has been corrected, taking with it much of the stigma that had been applied to users. Earlier observations by the government during Project MK Ultra showed that the compounds were psychomimetic, and that using them made a person temporarily psychotic. However, the observations were made under extremely unfavorable circumstances which were designed to induce “bad trips.” Nearly all the evidence provided by medical professionals directly contradicted the government’s findings, but they were largely disregarded and ignored.

Peyote Cactus

There are some risks. First, and probably the most serious, is the risk of misidentifying your drug. Many mushrooms have look-a-likes and discerning between edible and toxic mushrooms often takes an expert. Poisonous mushroom reactions aren’t always lethal, but some types of mushrooms go beyond gastric distress, and shut down your internal organs. There has long been talk of blotters laced with harder drugs, and research chemicals that mimic LSD are often passed off as the real thing and can cause fatal reactions. Short of purchasing a test kit, there is no way of knowing that you have LSD and not nbome 25i.

Second is the risk of a bad trip. Bad trips can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, from terrifying hallucinations to feelings of imminent death. The experience is psychological, and the user is typically no worse for wear when the effects of the drug wear off. That said a user experiencing a bad trip is often unpredictable and could pose a serious risk to themselves and others. Bad trips can have lasting psychological impacts on the user, particularly if they are mentally ill. While rare, some users have committed suicide under the influence, though death on these substances is more likely to be accidental. Users are often disoriented and on larger doses may do things they don’t recognize as being dangerous.

Tracking the path of decriminalized and legalized marijuana, and assuming NYC is successful, we should expect to start seeing talk about decriminalizing entheogens in our area within the next couple of years. Even though the research has shown the compounds to be relatively harmless in terms of physical damage to the body, psychedelics have unique and serious risks associated with use, and being aware of them could help to reduce harm in our community.

 I think the Decriminalize Nature movement is a step in the right direction. I think that by opening the conversation on mushrooms we can challenge our preconceptions about drug use and addiction. Perhaps we’re on the verge of reshaping our current punitive drug policies into something more socially and economically viable.

Apathy and the Student

by Dennis Austin

Oct. 15, 2019

Among the hundreds of students who walk through this college, you will find those who are creative, artistic, expressive, and scholarly. Motivated by their respective career prospects and/or academic goals, these students will undoubtedly take advantage of the opportunities this campus provides. While GCC may not be able to boast a plethora of resources comparable to its peer institutions, we are not completely lacking. However, there exists a significant population at this college in which students are not engaged in the classroom or outside of it. I have been intrigued at this phenomenon since arriving in January 2018, and as I prepare to depart for greener pastures elsewhere, I am somewhat disappointed at this reality. Growing up in an impoverished Black neighborhood, education symbolized opportunity and was pushed heavily onto me and my siblings. Being the rebel I am I dropped out of high school, much to my mother’s dismay. Prior to this occurrence I was forced to attend our local community college in downtown Chicago and failed…terribly. Now I must clarify. I was participating in class and quickly became known as a vocal student eager to engage with our instructor and the content discussed. Fortunately, that tendency never left me. What became a problem was my criminal procrastination in which assignments were not done or if by some divine intervention, were completed at the last minute. After my early academic years, much of which were spent daydreaming and being bored, I found myself “floating” in a sense. A move to Florida, followed by time spent in politics gave me a sense of where I wanted to be in life, particularly given the hardships I experienced during that brief period.

Eventually I found myself here in Batavia, eager to obtain an education but more so, make up for lost time. I have enjoyed my time interacting with professors, seeking additional academic opportunities while also immersing myself into various initiatives on campus. While I am surrounded by students who share similar sentiments and experiences, we often remark that we feel as if we are on island surrounded by other students who seem to be disinterested completely and would much rather seclude themselves in their cliques or go solo rather than embrace what’s available. A question that’s been on my mind is how do we draw in those students?  Well there are a variety of reasons we don’t. Students in my social circle have often told me their battles with mental health and the toll it takes on them to perform as a student. There are the students who work multiple jobs and thus have no time to get involved. A recent issue that arose at our campus is the rising number of students who are also caretakers, caring for relatives and in some cases, their children as well. Juggling multiple responsibilities can be difficult as one begins to prioritize what’s important. Is it more important to study for a math exam or buy groceries for your family when coming home from work? Not an easy question to answer but I believe that another aspect that is often overlooked—or avoided entirely—is the attitude of students at this campus. Let me preface by saying this will not be a stereotype of students at community colleges. I am aware of thriving community college systems in California, Illinois, Florida, and elsewhere. The concern lies within what I see as a student body that doesn’t care about their academic potential.  The intellectual curiosity and vigor often seen in other students seems to be as dead as the VCR. As a former tutor I would encounter students who often complained about completing two or five page assignments.

With all due respect, stop whining. I have seen friends at other community colleges and universities writing massive papers, and I am not in the least sympathetic. Too many students seem more concerned with uploading edited photos of themselves to Instagram or Snapchat streaks than with the responsibilities that are laid out in front of them. And then they have the gall to complain about their professor. Sorry. Not buying it. On some days it feels as if I have reverted back to high school. The bug of immaturity bites us all and for me it definitely did, but I was able to move past it.
As to why a high school dropout outperforms some of his classmates at GCC, the answer is easy. I can say without any shred of doubt that in terms of education, my mother was my greatest influence. Even at my lowest point, I could still read, write, speak eloquently, and read fervently. That was the result of many hours spent listening to Hooked on Phonics cassette tapes at two years old and her mandatory Saturday essays she would require me and my siblings to write. That’s why I have done so well. Yes, I missed a significant portion of time in the classroom, but I was equipped at a young age with the skills that instilled in me the foundation for success. Once you are blessed with that ability, it never leaves you. In our present times, students are not often exposed to an educational setting in which critical thought is encouraged. Many of the strategies I learned started when I was a small child, an important developmental period. Many don’t have this privilege. With budgets being slashed, this inevitably leads to a drop in quality of curriculum, instruction, and extracurricular opportunity. I will maintain that we are all responsible for our actions. You failed a test because you didn’t study? It’s your fault, but it can be for some students deeper than that.
If someone was never taught or given the proper tools to succeed in academia and beyond, they will fall by the wayside. I have seen it repeatedly growing up with my contemporaries. It’s not that the students do not care. It’s that they were not taught to care, either due to improper parenting, poor community relationships, lackadaisical educational opportunities or all of the above. Sometimes it is easy to analyze a situation with simple platitudes that make our adrenaline rise and blood boil but it does nothing in terms of offering answers to complex solutions. It is important to note that many of us peak at certain points in our life. In the midst of whatever teenage drama I was experiencing years ago, there was strong potential. Many people told me I had potential but until I chose to act, my potential lay dormant. Instead of asking “how” we bring students into the fold, the question should be does this institution provide the adequate resources in not just attracting but retaining? It’s no surprise that GCC is in the midst of great change however there are still many changes to be made. A rural environment with very little surrounding the campus does affect student morale and is a roadblock in students, particularly those who commute, in being active on campus. Geography plays a role as well. Santa Monica College in California has an active student body. Yes, there exists a segment of students who could not care less about the ongoing campus activities but they are outweighed by a large number of students who are enthusiastic about participating with their respective clubs and organizations. These opportunities at Santa Monica and elsewhere are made possible given their geographic location. These institutions are normally in urban areas where there is a greater number of resources and reliable transportation. Without these key necessities, it should be no surprise that students will often have a sense of alienation towards our college. These matters must be addressed if GCC is to truly develop into a thriving campus community.
Student apathy exists anywhere. Harvard, Yale, University of Illinois, Michigan, Stanford, and even GCC, are fighting a daily battle: winning over students who could give less than a damn about what happens. What makes our job difficult is three-fold: the working parent whose time can’t be fully given to academics, the student who is unable to fully embrace our campus due to limitations—transportation, etc. Then there is the student who hates being here. How do we solve this problem? I’m not so sure in terms of the first two issues, but as it relates to the student with an indifferent and lazy attitude towards academics my feelings are brief but valid. Stop making excuses, do your work, and succeed. Anything else is baloney.

GCC Student Government Participation

By Dennis Austin
May 1, 2019

When my English Professor recommended me for GCC’s Student Government Association last spring, I jumped at the opportunity. Impressed by my background working on political campaigns, he believed I would be a great fit. He was right. I was a good match; however, when I joined, I noticed structural problems that would besiege this student-led organization. I became Senator in Fall 2018 and decided that I would take a back seat in order to better understand how the organization was run. My patience as of late has run out. What I saw was troubling behavior from top SGA leadership. As such, not one important agenda was introduced, leaving us wondering what we were really doing. We did decide to amend our Student Government Constitution, but it didn’t get off the ground until months later. I have discussed these matters not only with my fellow SGA colleagues but also with students at large.

Many students feel that we don’t accomplish anything noteworthy in the Association, and I agree. Our secretary resigned two weeks into their position last fall because they felt we were not working on any important projects. They felt more satisfaction from their activities with a campus club rather than with the Student Government. I took it upon myself to speak with members of this campus who have been here longer than I’ve been alive, and the recurring conclusion in our conversations boils down to what they see as a largely laissez- faire organization. 

They are 100% correct in their observations. Top-tier leadership has lacked ambition, been ineffective, and has left our members with more questions than answers. Recently our meeting regarding the Constitution was scheduled to take place, but when it was canceled, I received no notification. How difficult is it to send out a text message? It’s the optics, I keep telling them. If people don’t see anything coming from you, they will correctly assume you are not handling your duties. Don’t get offended—just start being productive. 

Some administrators feel that the Student Government is too complacent. One in particular remarked to me how they felt SGA lacked the desire to introduce proposals, reach out to staff for co-operation, and stated that our organization appears to have no direction. Again, accurate. Our reputation has fallen amongst the College community, and some students see us as a joke. There are so many issues that our leadership could address on campus, but they don’t. Transportation for students who live on campus has been my personal project. I have met with Housing officials and we are in constant contact and have, in fact, come up with ideas we plan to implement to provide greater options for transportation. Top Student Government leadership has been absent on this. 

I speak with students who feel that SGA does not represent them. As a result, the general opinion of the group is disapproving. While some from SGA might state that students need to speak up more, this is a 50/50 relationship. We, as an organization, are responsible for going into the community and connecting with students, regardless of whether they reach out to us or not. Leadership has not stretched out to bridge the gap with our campus centers, nor have they addressed other pertinent issues. We are supposed to have a meeting with our College President every semester. This almost did not occur. If it wasn’t for me speaking up and showing interest, it probably wouldn’t have. We were scheduled to be present at the annual SUNY Student Assembly Conference held every spring. I expressed interest, but we couldn’t attend as no one else spoke up. I don’t mind being the one who speaks up, but that responsibility should come from those at the top.

While I understand that people are busy with conflicting schedules, I also understand that if someone is unable to properly carry out their duties for whatever reason, they should resign immediately and not leave our organization in limbo. I also believe some of our members feel jaded and unmotivated, and I suspect some see serving on SGA as a resume booster. While that behavior is reprehensible and selfish, people take on from what they see in leadership. If an employee has a boss who is repeatedly late, doesn’t complete projects, and is too relaxed, that attitude will spread. It’s the domino effect that has gripped our organization due to an absence of leadership from top Student Government officials. 

The unfortunate reality is that these issues have long existed before the current regime. I have been told repeatedly that SGA has struggled for years, crippled by disorganization and other woes. The fact that our current leadership has not been able to correct this path is a symbol of failed governance and a strong message that they must move on. This requires an immediate solution. We do not have strong student or faculty support and without those key endorsements, we cease to exist as an organization.

Thankfully, we elect new leadership next fall and I truly hope whoever is elected can properly address our structural weaknesses. I have been asked to run and am unsure at the moment, but if I choose to run and win, I will adopt a principle from a man who I disagree with politically and otherwise. “The Buck stops here,” as Ronald Reagan once said. Accountability, responsibility, and leadership. These principles have been absent from our current leadership. I hope those who will stand atop as leaders next year are aware of those principles.

Dennis is Managing Editor of the Genesee Political Review. This column originally appeared on that website but has been edited for this publication.