By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealanders will decide whether to legalise cannabis for recreational use in a referendum held during the 2020 general election, the country's justice minister said on Tuesday.
The referendum was among the promises made by Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party in a 2017 agreement that led to a coalition government with the Green and NZ First parties.
The coalition of populist, centrist and leftist parties ended the nine-year rule of the conservative National Party.
"The Cabinet decision is that it (the referendum) will be held at the 2020 general election, the agreement is that it will be binding," Justice Minister Andrew Little told reporters.
A "yes" vote would make New Zealand the first Asia Pacific country to allow recreational use of marijuana in a region where it is widely prohibited.
Canada, European nations such as the Netherlands and Spain, and certain U.S. states have already legalised recreational use.
Thailand is set to become the first Asian country to legalise medical marijuana, but a battle is brewing between local and foreign firms over control of a potentially lucrative market.
Australia recently introduced laws freeing up access to cannabis for medicinal use, but it does not allow recreational use.
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand, according to the NZ Drug Foundation, which receives government and private funding.
"By the age of 21, 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried cannabis at least once. And 10 percent developed a pattern of heavy use," the foundation said on its website, citing surveys conducted in the cities of Dunedin and Christchurch.
New Zealand lawmakers last week passed a bill to legalise medicinal cannabis that also provided a legal defence for terminally ill patients who use illicit products.
"We've had countless opinion polls for decades now, confirming New Zealanders are positively well ahead of political action on the issue of cannabis law reform," said Chloe Swarbrick, the Green Party's spokesperson on drug law reform.
"This binding referendum presents an opportunity to have the will of the people trigger meaningful legislative change," she said.
Media reports quoted National Party leader Simon Bridges as saying legalising cannabis would normalise the use of such drugs and sends the wrong message to New Zealanders.
Ardern's government was trying to use the referendum to distract voters in the 2020 polls, the opposition leader said.
A spokesperson for Bridges did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Darren Schuettler)