THE legal use of cannabis in medicines is to be introduced next year.
The move follows applications from drugs companies to sell cannabis-based medicines in Ireland.
However, a spokesperson for the department stressed that the change would not apply to recreational use of the drug.
Many countries allow medicinal cannabis for the treatment of illnesses such as multiple sclerosis.
Irish law rules out even medicinal cannabis, except for research, but the Government has taken a different approach from the previous administration, when former health minister Mary Harney was reluctant to loosen controls.
Recently resigned junior health minister Roisin Shortall said last year she was examining proposals to make cannabis-based medicines available.
That is now proceeding, with the Irish Medicines Board having received a request from a manufacturer looking for permission to sell medicines containing the drug.
The Department of Health spokesperson said legislation would be brought forward early next year to facilitate this.
Under the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act, the manufacture, production, preparation, sale, supply, distribution and possession of cannabis or cannabis-based medicinal products is unlawful except for the purposes of research.
But this will change to allow some medicinal products.
It will most likely involve finding a way of describing or labelling authorised products to make them legal.
The manufacturer seeking permission wants to sell a product "for the relief of symptoms of spasticity for people with multiple sclerosis".
Spasticity is also known as unusual tightness or stiffness of muscles, and can interfere with movement and speech.
The department spokesperson said: "Clinical trials in Ireland relating to this cannabis-based product will not be required.
"Department officials have been engaging with experts on how best to legally describe authorised cannabis-based medicinal products while maintaining existing controls on cannabis and cannabis substances to enable such authorised medicinal products to be prescribed in Ireland.
"While it is not possible to set out an exact timeframe, it is hoped to bring forward legislative proposals in early 2013."
According to departmental briefing documents prepared for Health Minister James Reilly when he took up office last year, officials were looking at plans to allow travellers from other EU states to legally bring cannabis products prescribed for medical use into Ireland.
Under the Schengen Agreement, which covers movement between member states, people can carry narcotic or psychotropic drugs that have been prescribed for medical use.