- Narcotics Drugs Act will be amended to allow the cultivation of medical cannabis
- Follows a lengthy campaign to allow the drug to be used to alleviate pain
(CNN)The Australian government has announced plans to allow cannabis to be legally grown for medical and scientific purposes.
Under current laws, marijuana is classified as an illegal drug, and while penalties vary from state to state, people who grow, use, possess or sell it can be fined or sent to prison.
In a statement Saturday, the government said the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 would be amended to allow the drug to be grown locally, without breaching the country's international obligations as a signatory to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961.
"This Government is incredibly sympathetic to the suffering of those Australians with debilitating illnesses and we want to enable access to the most effective medical treatments available," Health Minister Sussan Ley said in a statement.
Thousands called for change
Campaigners had been pushing for a change, arguing that it was unfair to criminalize patients who relied on the drug to ease their pain.
More than 246,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org to decriminalize the drug for medical use since it was launched two years ago.
It was initiated by retired nurse Lucy Haslam, whose late son Daniel used medical cannabis to ease the pain of terminal bowel cancer before his death in February at age 25.
In a blog post published this week, she wrote, "It wasn't until a fellow cancer sufferer suggested he try cannabis that his life with cancer became a little more tolerable. A sick young man reluctantly tried a joint and just like that, he felt so much better.
"He gained an appetite, had his nausea and vomiting addressed and was able to maintain his weight through his ongoing treatment."
A 'big win'
After her son's diagnosis, Haslam founded the group United in Compassion to campaign for legalized medical cannabis.
She described Saturday's announcement as a "big win," but she said she hoped it would be "meaningful in terms of getting medicine into the hands of patients in a timely fashion."
"I'm hoping that it will involve some sort of medical amnesty which could happen immediately but I guess I'm waiting to see the finer detail," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The government said it was important to emphasize that the announcement was not a debate about legalizing of marijuana for recreational use.
"Cannabis is classified as an illegal drug in Australia for recreational use and we have no plans to change that," Ley said.