Local law enforcement authorities believe the recent decision by voters in Washington and Colorado to legalize recreational use of marijuana is a big mistake that will only lead to more problems.

They hope the drug never becomes legal in Pennsylvania.

"I can see using marijuana for medical purposes if it's controlled," said Shamokin Police Chief Edward Griffiths. "But to me, that's the only potential benefit."

He wonders where it stops. What's the next drug that's made legal?

"I just think it would have a negative, snowball effect on everyone, especially police and the court system," he said.

Griffiths said studies have revealed many people who start out using marijuana end up becoming addicted to more potent drugs like cocaine, heroin or even synthetic drugs, such as bath salts.

"We won't solve anything by legalizing marijuana," said Mount Carmel Police Chief Todd Owens, who also serves as a field supervisor for the Northumberland-Montour Drug Task Force.

He added, "There's always going to be people trying to circumvent the law, and I believe legalizing marijuana will only create other problems."

Owens understands marijuana can offer relief to people suffering from illnesses, including cancer. But he said regulating its use is where the problem lies.

"People go to states now where marijuana is legal for medical purposes and purchase the drug before bringing it back to Pennsylvania and selling it on the streets," he said. "Many people also warehouse the drug before selling it in larger quantities."

Owens believes legalizing marijuana will "overtax" police, the court system, hospitals and other public service entities because it will be a "nightmare" to regulate and enforce.

"I think it's a terrible idea to even consider," Owens said. "There's just no justification to doing it."

Change the category

Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini doesn't believe marijuana should be legalized in Pennsylvania, but thinks it belongs in another category for controlled substances.

"By law, marijuana is identified as a schedule I controlled substance, but state legislators need to reclassify it, because it's not as serious as other narcotics like heroin," he said.

He said his department spends a lot of time and money prosecuting marijuana cases that could be better spent investigating more potent drugs that are more of a danger to society.

"We need to focus more on drugs that can cause serious injury or death, and destroy a community," he said.

While Rosini's office investigates its share of marijuana cases, the majority of drug case investigations in recent years have involved cocaine, heroin and prescription drugs abuse.

It's a 'gateway'

Glenda Bonetti, director of the Northumberland County Drug and Alcohol Program, is not a proponent of legalizing marijuana, although she, too, acknowledges its medical benefits.

"Marijuana can increase an ill person's appetite and allow them to function better, but I don't ever want to see it legalized in Pennsylvania because it would only cause more problems," she said.

Bonetti said a large portion of the clientele treated by her department entered into the program after using marijuana. She said the majority of marijuana users are adolescents.

"Marijuana is a gateway that leads people to become addicted to more serious drugs," Bonetti said. "Some of our clients began using marijuana at age 12."

During the 2011-2012 fiscal year that ended June 30, Bonetti said the drug and alcohol program served 414 clients, including 298 males and 116 females. The majority of the clients were under the age of 30. She said most of the clients underwent treatment for alcohol problems involving DUI-related incidents. Bonetti said marijuana was the next largest problem, with opiate and heroin users coming in third.

Out of the 414 clients treated, 175 were between the ages of 19 and 29. Eighty-five clients between the ages of 30 and 39 were the next highest group.

Bonetti said 75 of the 414 clients were treated for marijuana addiction.

Between July 1 and the middle of November, approximately 150 clients have received treatment through the county drug and alcohol program.