Kim Connors is a Connellsville Area School District bus driver and a recovering addict.
She does what she can in her position as the former to keep her passengers from becoming the latter.
Connors, 54, of Leisenring, picks and chooses her battles in policing the language that students on her bus use, but f-bombs aren’t allowed. Neither are the words “cigarettes” or “vapes.”
“Those are strong nos,” Connors said. “ … I don’t want to hear it.”
The thought of legalizing marijuana for recreational use irritates her.
“The legalization of any kind of drug is just – the battle that I fight – it devastates me because it’s like giving carte blanche to go out and do something else,” said Connors, 10 years sober from a cocaine addiction.
She does her best to guide her 31-year-old son and people she sponsors through recovery, cofounding a closed Facebook group focused on addiction advocacy and reform.
“I don’t think in any way, shape or form that we need another legal way to alter a state of mind,” Connors said.
Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties from 2015 through 2017 suffered a combined 989 overdose deaths, according to a September 2018 report on the opioid threat in Pennsylvania prepared by the Drug Enforcement Administration Philadelphia Division and the University of Pittsburgh.
But those on the front lines locally in the battle against the opioid crisis have differing views on what impact legalizing recreational marijuana might have on the fight against addiction. Some say it’s a gateway drug that would invite further havoc on area communities reeling from the ravages of substance dependence. Others think it would have little impact on recovery efforts and may actually benefit society.
“Is it going to hurt the recovery community? I’d say no,” said Joey Pagano, 43, of Carroll Township, a recovering addict and former president of the Charleroi-based recovery group Club Serenity.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that marijuana use is linked to other substance-use disorders, including nicotine addiction, but that the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances.
“They call it a gateway drug, but in all honesty, alcohol is just as bad,” said Pagano, who works at SPHS Behavioral Health in Monessen, connecting those in active addiction with treatment resources.
Elizabeth Paulo, 31, of Morgantown, W.Va., runs two women’s recovery houses in Uniontown, where her partner, Brant Copple, 41, runs three men’s recovery houses. Alcohol has been the gateway drug for most of the addicts that Paulo has listened to. It was for her, too.
“It’s a gateway because it’s illegal,” Copple said. “So the guy that sells marijuana also sells cocaine, he also sells the pills. He sells the other side of the gateway. So if you can only go to a store that sells marijuana, perhaps that ends that connection. Maybe not.”
Vincent Weaver, 62, of Uniontown, a Fayette County Drug & Alcohol Commission board member who overcame a crack addiction in the early 1990s, doesn’t think marijuana is necessarily a gateway drug, either.
“It’s no more a gateway than alcohol,” Weaver said.
But Fayette County Drug & Alcohol Commission clinical supervisor Brian Reese said at Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s recreational cannabis listening tour stop in Fayette County last month that he “vehemently” believes pot is a gateway drug.
“It is a drug that is destroying families,” Reese said. “ ... I have never seen in 25 years of (treating) addiction a benefit from it. I look for it, but I can’t find it.”
Regardless of whether it could be a gateway drug, marijuana may have a limited impact on those already in addiction or recovery, several recovering addicts predicted.
“(M)aking it maybe more readily available like alcohol, yeah, maybe they’ll use it more,” Pagano said. “But if you’re in recovery, you’re in recovery.”
Pagano said several of his clients at SPHS have pursued medical marijuana cards to see if that would help treat their addiction. Opioid use disorder is one of the 21 qualifying medical conditions for which Pennsylvanians may participate in the state’s medical marijuana program.
No death from an overdose of marijuana has been reported, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
A 2018 analysis of Medicaid prescription data published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that both medical and recreational cannabis laws were associated with annual reductions in opioid prescribing rates.
But since insurance companies generally do not cover drugs like cannabis that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has not approved for medical use, medical marijuana is not insured, meaning that the pain relief it can offer simply costs too much.
Some have argued legalized, state-regulated recreational marijuana could ultimately be a cheaper alternative to medical marijuana, and therefore, to opioids.
Local addicts predict that legalization will eventually happen, whether they support it or not.
“I can’t do it in my heart,” Connors said.
Mike Tony is a staff writer for the Uniontown Herald-Standard.