By Daniel Wallis
(Reuters) - California officials will hold forums starting next month across the most populous U.S. state to seek public input on proposals to legalize marijuana under a strict tax and regulatory system, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday.
California became the first U.S. state to allow medical marijuana at a ballot in 1996, and it was followed by several other states, some of which also later legalized recreational use of the drug by adults.
Announcing the start of the public phase of the work of a state commission that he leads on marijuana policy, Newsom said that over the past 18 months the panel identified three key issues related to legalization, tax and regulation.
"With marijuana legalization increasingly likely in California, it is vital that policymakers are informed by the expert think tank we've assembled to make sure any changes in law are thoughtfully constructed and implemented safely and effectively," Newsom said in a statement.
The first of the commission's public forums will be held on April 21 at the University of California, Los Angeles, officials said.
Newsom said that even though marijuana remains illegal in California, it remains ubiquitous and easily accessible to children.
"We incarcerate too many nonviolent people, spend too much money doing it, and ruin too many lives - especially among the poor and disadvantaged - all without enhancing public safety. As a parent and a policymaker, this demands a different approach," Newsom added.
He noted that a new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows public support for legalization at its highest level since the institute began asking the question in May 2010, with 55 percent of likely voters in favor.
Among the areas the commission identified for further study, he said, are issues relating to protecting children, ensuring public safety and setting up taxes and regulations that maximize revenue while eliminating the illicit market.
The panel includes legal, academic, law enforcement and policy experts.
An American Civil Liberties Union report in June 2013 showed sharp racial disparities in marijuana arrests in California, and across the nation.
On Wednesday, the pro-legalization group Drug Policy Alliance said the number of marijuana possession arrests in Colorado fell dramatically after its first legal marijuana stores opened last year, but that blacks still face higher arrest rates than whites.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver)