The body which represents the country's doctors says it remains opposed to legalising cannabis after the Government outlined plans for a public referendum on the issue next year.

However, the New Zealand Medical Association said it was in favour of civil rather than criminal penalties for cannabis possession, saying it was consistent with goals to reduce harm related to the drug.

The NZMA, which represents doctors in all areas of medicine, said cannabis was a harmful drug which caused a range of health and social harms at both the individual and community level.

It did not condone the use of cannabis for recreational purposes and opposed legalisation, its members said in a statement today. The Government's announcements about a referendum on legalising cannabis in 2020 had not changed this position.

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Chairwoman Kate Baddock said that in addition to physical harm, cannabis created social and psychological harm.

"We are disappointed that the Government is not showing leadership on a matter that has far-reaching effects for all New Zealanders.

"What we would like to see is the Government undertaking targeted initiatives to reduce the social inequalities that increase the risk of harm from drug use and meaningful investment into education and treatment programmes.

"NZMA would also like to see a public education campaign to demonstrate that 'soft' or recreational drugs, as any drug, can have serious and harmful effects."

Baddock said its members backed civil penalties - such as court orders to get counselling - for cannabis possession, saying they were consistent with principles of harm reduction.

The association also backed specialist drug courts which were being trialled around the country and took a more rehabilitative approach to alcohol and drug-related offending and addiction.

Justice Minister Andrew Little announced yesterday that New Zealanders would be asked to support or oppose a draft law which would legalise cannabis in a referendum which would run alongside the general election next year.

Legal use would be limited to people aged over 20, smoking would be limited to specially licensed premises and private property, and there would be limits on home-grown cannabis if legalisation was approved in the referendum and passed by the next Government.

Advertising cannabis products would be banned and it would be taxed.

But much of the detail of the draft law is yet to be decided. The Ministry of Justice will consult interested parties including academics, researchers, cannabis users and iwi before drafting the proposed law.