A legal age of 20 for purchasing cannabis for recreational use has been proposed in a Cabinet paper to be discussed by senior Government ministers tomorrow.
A paper from Justice Minister Andrew Little, which contains four options for a referendum at the 2020 election on the decriminalisation of cannabis for recreational use, has been leaked by the National Party today.
Among the proposals contained in the paper is that the age at which cannabis could be purchased legally for personal use should be 20.
That struck a balance between deterring young people from using it and preventing people buying cannabis from a black market, the paper said.
But Paula Bennett, National's drug law reform spokeswoman, said the Cabinet paper was clear that smoking cannabis under the age of 25 was bad for brain development.
"The paper acknowledges that regular marijuana use increases the risk of developing depression, psychosis and schizophrenia and is especially harmful to those under 25 years old. It also acknowledges that there is a one in six chance of young people becoming dependent. This would result in further demand for mental health services," Bennett said.
Ross Bell, executive director of the National Drug Foundation, said the legal age could be one of the main sticking points.
"There are good arguments either side of this, whether it should be 18 or 20. I guess they will try to find a consensus view.
"Good public health principles would be that you want to restrict access, so that would say that 20 could be the right age.
"On the flipside of that, anything under that age is going to be illicit. That would mean that anyone under the age of 20, just as they are now, would have to buy their cannabis from the black market, so they actually miss out on any of those good public health protections," Bell said.
He also pointed out that New Zealand's youth justice system was up to the age of 18 so those aged between 18 and 20 wouldn't benefit from the protections that offered either.
Little's office today referred media inquiries to the office of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but it declined to comment on the leak.
Chloe Swarbrick, the Green Party's drug law reform spokeswoman, said in a tweet the leaked paper was out of date.
The referendum to legalise cannabis for personal use is part of the Labour-Greens confidence and supply agreement.
A poll in January showed 60 per cent of New Zealanders would vote to legalise cannabis for personal use in a referendum, 24 per cent would vote 'no', and 16 per cent had no opinion.
Almost two in three people surveyed supported a regulated market with licensed operators, while 39 per cent thought that a legal purchase age of 18 would be best.
The four options for the proposed 2020 referendum, according to the leaked paper, are:
Bennett claimed the Coalition Government had been unable to reach a consensus and the decision around which option they would choose had been holding up the process.
"From my reading of the Cabinet paper they are highly unlikely to go with option one but I believe it's option one that New Zealand First are pushing.
"The way the Cabinet paper is written, you can kind of tell that Andrew Little probably leans to option four, so it wouldn't surprise me if they land on option three."
She said National would be pushing hard for option four.
"We believe that legislation has got time and should go through the House because of the robustness of that against public submissions. It lets select committee really get into the detail of that proposed legislation and for that to be public and everybody to get that level of scrutiny."