The Department of Health has said it hopes to bring forward legislative proposals later this year, or early in 2013, to allow cannabis-based medicinal products to be prescribed in Ireland.

The Department said that notwithstanding the reluctance to loosen current controls on cannabis generally, its expert clinical advice is that the cannabis-based drug Sativex, "is a valid treatment option".

Sativex is used in other countries for treating symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis.

The Irish Medicines Board has received a market authorisation request from GW Pharma, the makers of Sativex and the agency has recommended the approval of the product for the Irish market based on an analysis of its quality, safety and efficacy.

However, a change in the law to the Misuse of Drugs Act would be needed to allow the drug to be prescribed, as cannabis-based medicines are currently Schedule 1 controlled substances.

The Department said its officials have been engaging with experts on how best to legally describe cannabis-based medicinal products, while maintaining existing controls on cannabis and cannabis substances.

Sativex is available in Britain, Germany, Denmark and elsewhere for the relief of symptoms of spasticity for patients with MS, where other treatments have failed to provide adequate benefit.

It said that while the legislative amendments required can be made by means of statutory instrument, the legal issues are complex.

Dr David Finn, Lecturer in Pharmacology & Therapeutics at the Centre for Pain Research NUI Galway, said the issue was about developing therapeutic agents targeting the body in a specific way for a specific purpose.

He said it was not about smoking and inhaling cannabis as a drug of abuse.