CANBERRA -- Australia has passed a medical marijuana bill to allow the cultivation of the drug, but the Greens say medical cannabis remains an illegal substance.
Health Minister Sussan Ley announced on Wednesday afternoon that amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act -- passed through the House of Representatives on Tuesday -- had also successfully passed through the Senate.
The bill would allow access to medicinal cannabis products for people suffering from serious illness, by legislating the growing of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. Products such as cannabis oil are used in the treatment of nausea during chemotherapy, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other neurological conditions.
"This is an historic day for Australia and the many advocates who have fought long and hard to challenge the stigma around medical cannabis products so genuine patients are no longer treated as criminals," Ley said in a statement.
"This is the missing piece in a patient's treatment journey and will now see seamless access to locally-produced cannabis products from farm to pharmacy."
"Under this scheme, a patient with a valid prescription can possess and use a medicinal cannabis product manufactured from cannabis plants legally cultivated in Australia".
Greens leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, spoke in the Senate on Wednesday in support of the bill, but denied that it was the "missing piece" to give medical access to cannabis products. He said the bill did not change the classification of cannabis and that it remained an illegal drug, despite the green light to grow the substance.
"It is one piece of the puzzle but there's lot more that needs to be done," Di Natale told media.
"[The bill] doesn't do anything about the distribution, supply, prescription of the drug... there's no legislation around how doctors will prescribe it."
"Ironically, medicinal cannabis is still an illegal drug."
In her statement, Ley said the government was "well-advanced" in downgrading cannabis to a lower level on the Poisons Schedule.
“This will simplify arrangements around the legal possession of medicinal cannabis products, placing them in the same category as restricted medicines such as morphine, rather than an illicit drug. This will in turn reduce any barriers to access, no matter what state a patient lives in,” she said.
Di Natale said the Greens would wait to assess how the bill operates in practice, but currently had a more detailed medical cannabis bill which they would introduce if they felt the government's bill did not go far enough.
"We reserve the right to reintroduce our legislation if progress is too slow.. if we don't see the drug make its way to pharmacies and then through to doctors, we will look at reintroducing legislation which does that," he said.
While the bill's passage has been praised on medical grounds, it does does not make any provision for recreational cannabis use. On announcing the government's intentions to introduce the bill back in October, Ley said: "This is not a debate about legalisation of cannabis. This is not about drugs. This is not a product you smoke. This has nothing to do with that."
During the senate debate, Senator David Leyonhjelm -- an avid supporter of legalisation of marijuana on medical and recreational grounds -- invoked Star Wars villain Darth Vader in his support of the bill.
For the record, his full quote read:
"Legalising recreational cannabis use would deprive organised crime, whether Middle Eastern crime gangs, Asian triads, bikie gangs or relatives of Darth Vader, of a major source of income, and relieve police of the cost of finding and destroying illicit crops. Of the $1.5 billion spent annually on drug law enforcement, 70% is attributable to cannabis. That’s an expense we do not need."