France has taken the first step towards legalizing medicinal cannabis after a government-appointed committee of scientific experts ruled in favour of the measure.

The French Agency for Drug Safety (ANSM) put together the expert committee to assess the therapeutic and pain relieving properties of cannabis. The French Ministry of Health is already in favour of medicinal marijuana.

The committee has investigated the issue and concluded that it is “relevant to authorize the use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes for patients in certain clinical situations”. If a patient is receiving insufficient relief from current therapeutics, cannabis represents a viable alternative, the committee decided.

It said people with chronic pain, cancer patients, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis sufferers and patients in palliative care could all benefit from cannabis use. This Temporary Specialized Scientific Committee (CSST) was set up in October, comprising 13 independent healthcare experts, and it will spend 12 months investigating the efficacy of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The next step is to assess patients treated in the form of a national registry.

It has declared it is in favour of a change in legislation to permit medicinal cannabis use, but it “excludes the smoking route for cannabis for therapeutic purposes”, so derivatives are likely to come to the fore if and when France rolls out a medicinal marijuana trade.

It has the world’s seventh largest economy and the only countries with a bigger GDP to legalize medicinal cannabis are Germany and the UK. It could, therefore, represent a lucrative market for the global cannabis industry.

There is a groundswell of support for cannabis across Europe, where neighbouring Luxembourg has just legalized recreational use. Another neighbour, Germany, has established itself as the regional leader in the medicinal cannabis trade, but France could emerge as a credible rival if it follows the committee’s recommendations.

First, it has to create a framework and decide who is allowed to prescribe it and where patients can source it. In The Netherlands, the patient has to pay for it, but Germany covers the cost for patients, so that is another issue for the French government to grapple with. It seems likely that we will not see a medicinal cannabis industry take shape in France until late 2019 or 2020, but the committee’s decision represents encouraging news for campaigners in France.