Australia is making key moves to legalise the growing of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes, the government announced.

Health Minister Sussan Ley said on Saturday that changes to existing legislation that bans the growing of marijuana will be introduced to parliament, with the aim of providing alternate treatment for people with debilitating illnesses.

"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," Ley said.

But growing cannabis for recreational purposes will still be illegal in Australia.

Smoking marijuana is widespread in Australia, and police in most states do not charge people found with small amounts for personal use. However, possessing or growing commercial quantities of cannabis is illegal.

Ley said medicinal marijuana growers will be licensed and distribution to patients will be controlled to ensure it is safe, legal and sustainable.

"Allowing the cultivation of legal medicinal cannabis crops in Australia under strict controls strikes the right balance between patient access, community protection and our international obligations," she said.

The move is supported by the opposition and is likely to pass through parliament.

Most Australian states are keen to embrace the controlled legal cultivation of medicinal cannabis and hope it might become a money-making export crop.

Medicinal cannabis is mostly used as an oil rather than smoked.

Source: Agencies