The Sicilian regional government has decided to underwrite the cost of medical cannabis for anyone suffering from chronic pain, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis.

Italy legalized medical marijuana in 2013 and it now has one of the largest markets in Europe. However, it is highly regulated and it can be expensive, as domestic production is limited and imports often prove to be costly.

Sicily’s health chief, Ruggero Razza, has now decided to fund treatment for patients in a landmark move that will significantly boost the size of the island’s market. Doctors specializing in anesthesia, resuscitation, neurology, and pain therapy can issue prescriptions for up to six months’ worth of cannabis, and patients can now visit pharmacies attached to Sicilian hospitals to receive it free of charge.

Catania-based cannabis campaign group BisTer thanked Razza for signing the decree, but said it is just the first step and promised to continue fighting to improve Sicilians’ access to marijuana.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, with a population of more than 5 million and a GDP of almost $100 billion. It has permitted five private companies to produce cannabis on the island, with sites in Agrigento, Catania, Palermo, Ragusa, and Syracuse, and it could eventually produce a considerable amount of cannabis per year.

Canopy Rivers Inc. (TSXV: RIV) announced last year that it had gained a permit to produce 600,000 kg of cannabis per year at a cultivation site in Sicily. The firm, a venture capital unit of Canopy Growth Corp. (TSX: WEED) has a subsidiary called Canapar that operates the site in Ragusa.

Patients living on the mainland still have to pay for cannabis treatment. Last year, the Italian Ministry of Defence opened a two-week tender process for a 400kg supply contract following an unexpected production shortage at its facility in Florence.

Four international companies bid for the opportunity to supply the market, including Tilray and Canopy, but it selected rival Canadian firm Aurora Cannabis (NYSE: ACB) as the sole winner. Marijuana products in Italy are provided to the Agenzia Industrie Difesa for distribution to pharmacies that serve medical patients.

Last month the Italian Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to grow small amounts of marijuana at home for personal use. However, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and deputy premier has emerged as a powerful opponent to liberalization.

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