File picture: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo.

INTERNATIONAL – The cannabis investor conference in Hong Kong this week started with some stern warnings against smoking pot in the city, which can land you in prison. Then folks got down to talking business.

The Hong Kong Cannabis Investor Symposium on Thursday drew executives from some of the world’s hottest cannabis firms together with more than 200 attendees to talk about the plant’s misconceptions and its investment opportunities. 

Pot stocks have returned 73 percent in the last 12 months, outpacing Bitcoin, gold and any major equity index. 

Despite the prohibition in Hong Kong, many of the forum’s participants said they see attitudes in Asia changing.

"When people see legalization in the US is being accepted, it’s very likely the same trend will happen in Asia," said Jim McCormick, chief operating officer of KushCo, a California-based provider of cannabis packaging services. "Sooner or later, it’s going to happen."

Sumit Mehta, chief executive of Mazakali, a cannabis investment-banking platform based in San Francisco, said legalization in states across America would trigger changes in Asia because "it was the US that exported propaganda against cannabis around the world.”

Some pot entrepreneurs said they were already making forays into China, seizing opportunities in medical cannabis, which is cultivated in the country under government control.

CannAcubed, a grower with its main offices in Singapore (where drug trafficking can carry the death penalty), is working with China’s state-owned health fund to build an industrial hemp park in Yunnan province, with 100,000 hectares of land, according to the firm’s chief executive, Glenn Davies.

Others came hoping to tap Asian investment money. Dooma Wendschuh, chief executive officer at Province Brands, a Toronto-based company developing cannabis beer, said he expects investors in the region to buy at least a third of a 40 percent stake in a $23 million deal to take the firm public, planned for this year. One Hong Kong investor and several others from Japan have already committed, he said.

Peter Bi, manager of a state-owned investment fund in Guangzhou, was one Chinese investor who he said was drawn to the forum because of the wild rally in pot stocks.

Bi, who asked his fund not be named because of its public relations policy, said he was researching western producers of medical hemp expanding into China.

"Hemp cultivation for industrial and medical use will rise in China," he said. "Foreign companies with advanced technology for processing can benefit."