In the Coal Region, a debate over whether marijuana legalization will hurt or help opioid crisis

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman addresses the crowd at the Pottsville listening tour. (Capital-Star by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, Schuylkill County in the Coal Region has been one of the hardest hit by opioids.

On Saturday, the role that legalizing marijuana could play in that crisis was hotly debated during a stop on Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s listening tour.

At a theater in downtown Pottsville, Melissa Kalyan, administrator for Schuylkill County Drug & Alcohol Programs, raised concerns about teen use and the risk of addiction.

She wanted to know: Are we potentially creating another crisis?

“It seems a little reckless to [legalize marijuana] when we’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic,” she said, as many people in the packed house grumbled.

Another woman who said she worked in professional counseling and with people in drug court told the crowd, in her experience, addiction is initiated through either alcohol or marijuana.

“I understand repercussions long-term,” the woman said. “I hope you will come back to lobby for money for treatment.”

Those concerns were countered by dozens of people who spoke of benefiting from marijuana or of losing people to opioids.

“In this county, marijuana isn’t the problem,” one woman said. “Methamphetamine and heroin is.”

One mother said, after her son was arrested for DUI, he was no longer able to use marijuana recreationally because of drug testing as part of his probation.

“He turned to another drug, which killed him and he is no longer with us today,” she said. The woman explained she now uses marijuana to cope with the loss of her son.

“Without marijuana, I would have taken my own life,” she said.

Because of marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification, research on cannabis in the U.S. is extremely limited. For every study you can find that touts benefits you can find one that warns of potential danger.

Research on how marijuana could play a role in curtailing the opioid epidemic is similarly mixed, though municipalities across the country are experimenting with the idea.

Paul Domalakes, an attorney who recently retired from the county’s public defender’s office, said he was neutral on the subject until he began looking into the effects of marijuana.

He pointed to studies that show a link between marijuana use and intimate partner violence.

Domalakes told the Capital-Star he isn’t necessarily opposed to decriminalization, but thinks Pennsylvania should let other states be the guinea pigs for legalization.

As he does at each listening session, Fetterman asked those in attendance who is in favor and who is opposed to legalization. Like in Harrisburg, the vast majority raised their hands in support.

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