This has been a big year for the marijuana industry.

As you're probably well aware, our neighbor to the north, Canada, became the first industrialized country in the world -- and only the second overall behind Uruguay -- to legalize recreational cannabis, on Oct. 17. Although it'll take a few years for growers to beef up their capacity, the legalization of adult consumption paves the way for billions of dollars in added annual sales. It also validates cannabis as a legitimate business model.

Success was seen in the U.S. as well. Two new states voted in favor of their respective medical marijuana initiatives during the November midterms, bringing the number of legalized medical weed states up to 32. During the year, Vermont and Michigan also approved recreational pot measures, although Vermont will be the only one of 10 adult-legal states that won't allow the retail sale of the drug.

A doctor with a stethoscope around his neck holding a cannabis leaf between his hands.

Image source: Getty Images.

Say what? This very conservative East Asian country just legalized medical cannabis

Practically everywhere you look, cannabis is being discussed right now -- and it's leading to legalizations that, even as recently as a few years ago, would have been thought of as unbelievable.

As the perfect example, the highly conservative nation of South Korea announced earlier this week that the Narcotics Control Act was amended, thereby legalizing access to medical marijuana. In the process, South Korea became the first East Asian country to legalize medical pot, and only the second country in Asia overall.

Mind you, access to medical cannabis will be very limited, according to the legislation. Patients will need a recommendation from a licensed physician, then must receive approval from the Korea Orphan Drug Center, which handles the dispensation of rare and specialized medicines. Should a patient receive these approvals, he or she would be allowed to obtain hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) products, or other nonpsychoactive components. Essentially, products containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the cannabinoid that gets a user "high," won't be allowed. Rather, only products that are rich in CBD, the cannabinoid best known for its perceived medical benefits, will be prescribed -- and presumably only in select instances. 

A judge's gavel next to a pile of dried cannabis buds.

Image source: Getty Images.

But despite South Korea's easing of restrictions on CBD-based products, the country remains steadfast in its disdain for recreational cannabis consumption. If caught using recreational weed in South Korea, you could face a fine of up to 50 million won ($44,700 U.S.), and spend up to five years in jail. Not to mention, South Korea holds its citizens to this recreational use law even when traveling abroad. For instance, if the South Korean government discovers that a citizen had consumed recreational pot in Canada, he or she could be subject to the same punishment as if the crime were committed within South Korea. 

Given the country's stern stance on recreational weed use, it really is amazing that medical marijuana use in any form is now legal.

Strict governance won't stop this pot stock from wanting in on the action

Though this legalization is ultimately surprising, there had been some writing on the wall suggesting South Korea could lead a green wave of change on the medical front.

In July, South Korea's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced that it would allow a small number of cannabis-based drugs to be prescribed within the country. Among these included GW Pharmaceuticals' (GWPH) oral solutions Epidiolex and Sativex. The latter is approved in more than a dozen countries outside the U.S. as a treatment for spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. It's not much of a revenue driver for GW Pharmaceuticals.

The former, Epidiolex, ran circles around the placebo in multiple late-stage trials in the U.S. for two rare forms of childhood-onset epilepsy: Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. GW Pharmaceuticals' CBD-based oral solution Epidiolex is the company's possible ticket to recurring profitability, and having yet another market to push its lead drug is great news.

Cannabis leaves behind held in front of a globe of the Earth.

Image source: Getty Images.

Ultimately, South Korea may not be the only option in the region for GW Pharmaceuticals and producers of hemp-based CBD oil products. In October, the wheels were put in motion that could allow Thailand to become the third Asian country to legalize medical cannabis. Generally known for its exceptionally harsh punishments for drug offenses, Thailand is projected by analysts to have a medical marijuana market that could be worth as much as $4 billion within a decade. That's bound to get the attention of bigger cannabis firms.

Of course, it's worth mentioning that opponents of legalization are primarily concerned that it would open the door to non-Thai competitors, which wouldn't be a good thing for Thailand's economy in the eyes of the opponents. 

In September, we also witnessed Malaysia take the first steps toward a possible legalization of medical cannabis, with Cabinet members discussing the prospects of amending existing laws within the country. Understandably, discussions are still very early and not guaranteed to go anywhere. Nonetheless, it's a big first step for a county that's previously sentenced people to death for selling cannabis. 

The medical marijuana landscape is transforming before our eyes. The big question is: Which country will surprise us next?