The race is on between Thailand and South Korea to become the first country in east Asia to introduce a medicinal cannabis industry.

Earlier this month Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly signed off a bill that permits cannabis for medicinal and research purposes. The NLA is now deliberating and wrestling with the intricacies of the new legislation before it is formally introduced. NLA member Somchai Swangkarn believes the vetting process will conclude in January.

During that time the Thai government will seek to create a framework that ensures it will not lose control of the industry. All applications to its Intellectual Property Department have thus far come from overseas firms, and its politicians do not want to see large multinationals monopolizing this lucrative trade.

Yet South Korea looks to have stolen a march by approving an amendment to the Act on the Management of Narcotic Drugs. In doing so, the country’s National Assembly has essentially legalized medicinal marijuana.

However, nobody in the country has gained access yet, and the process appears to be somewhat convoluted. Doctors will consider applications from patients suffering from extreme forms of conditions like epilepsy on a case-by-case basis. Those doctors can offer a recommendation for medicinal marijuana, but the patient must then apply to the Korea Orphan Drug Center for the license, before hopefully being granted permission to consume cannabis by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

However, cannabis advocates in the region see the news as a huge step in the right direction. It took many by surprise, as South Korea is a conservative country and it has strict anti-cannabis laws.

Mere possession of cannabis can lead to up to five years in jail under the Cannabis Control Act of 1976, and several K pop stars have spent time behind bars for smoking weed. Meanwhile, Koreans visiting Canada have been warned they are breaking the law by smoking weed while there.

However, the Korean government has now made an official differentiation between hallucinogenic cannabis containing high levels of THC and derivatives like Epidiolex containing CBD, which can ease the pain and suffering of many patients.

It remains to be seen whether Thailand or South Korea will be first to actually prescribe a patient with medicinal marijuana, but it is intriguing to see two markedly different nations both taking inexorable steps towards rolling out a regulated trade.