ROME Italy said on Thursday it would grow medical marijuana at a secure military lab outside Florence and distribute it through pharmacies to slash costs and make it more easily available to the sick.
The use of medical marijuana or cannabis derivatives to treat patients has been legal in Italy since 2007, but only a few dozen people took it through the national healthcare system in 2013 because of its prohibitive cost.
The military lab produces so-called "orphan" drugs no longer made by large pharmaceutical companies that are needed to treat rare diseases, Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said after signing an agreement with Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin.
"The institute already produces some medicines," Pinotti said, explaining the unusual case of tasking the military to grow pot. "And we can guarantee security conditions."
Lorenzin said she wanted to "debunk all the cultural or ideological myths" about using certain drugs in health care.
"We already allow the use of drugs in medical treatment that are opiate or cocaine derivatives, and now we'll use cannabis," she told reporters.
"Recreational drug use is harmful. But cannabis can be used to help treat certain pathologies or alleviate pain," she said.
Possessing, selling and growing marijuana are illegal in Italy, which now imports all of its medical supplies of the drug, mostly from the Netherlands.
Tax and transportation more than double the cost, with the retail price reaching almost 38 euros ($49) per gram, Dr. Francesco Crestani, an anesthesiologist and president of Italy's Association for Therapeutic Cannabis, told Reuters.
While several Italian regions have drafted laws aimed at cutting the cost of medical marijuana for people suffering from pathologies like cancer or multiple sclerosis, they have run into fierce opposition.
Many argue that allowing the use of marijuana, even by the sick, sends the wrong message to teenagers, whose use of the drug is growing. One in four between the age of 15 and 19 has smoked it last year, a parliamentary report said this week.
Italy's choice to keep tight control of the production of marijuana contrasts with developments in the United States, where almost half the 50 states allow sick people to grow their own, or in some states to buy it from dispensaries.
The agreement, which the ministers described as a "pilot project", should result in the medicines being delivered to pharmacies by the end of 2015, Lorenzin said.
Private pharmaceutical companies will not be able to produce medical marijuana "given the delicacy of this issue," she said.
Each of Italy's 20 regional governments will establish the exact cost of the medicine to patients, Lorenzin added, but the retail cost of medical marijuana in Italy should be "more than halved."
"This is a positive step," said therapeutic cannabis proponent Crestani, adding he hopes production is not delayed by bureaucratic snags.
Due to the costs, most sick people who want marijuana have been buying it from the local drug dealer, Crestani said.
"It's not safe to buy it on the street because there is no control over how it is produced. And the more you can cut the cost of the medicine, the better it is for the patient."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan)