NUEVA HELVECIA, Uruguay (AP) — When he was younger, the only thing that Enrique Morales knew about marijuana was that you smoked it to get high.

Today, the former driver for a dairy company is a horticulturist on a cannabis plantation about 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo and he says drops of marijuana oil have been key to treating his mother’s osteoarthritis.

“My perception has now changed. It is a plant that has a lot of properties!” he said.

The company that owns the plantation, Fotmer SA, is now part of a flourishing and growing medical cannabis industry in Uruguay.

The country got a head start on competitors in December 2013 when it became the first in the world to regulate the cannabis market from growing to purchase, a move that has brought a wave of investment.

For Uruguayan citizens or legal residents over 18 years old, the law allows the recreational use, personal cultivation and sale in pharmacies of marijuana through a government-run permit system, and officials later legalized the use and export of medical marijuana to countries where it is legal.

No company has yet begun large-scale export operations, but many say selling medical cannabis oil beyond the local market of 3.3 million inhabitants is key to staying ahead of the tide and transforming Uruguay into a medical cannabis leader along with the Netherlands, Canada and Israel.

“The Latin American market is poorly supplied and is growing,” said Chuck Smith, chief operating officer of Denver, Colorado-based Dixie Brands, which recently formed a partnership with Khiron Life Sciences, a Toronto company that has agreed to acquire Dormul SA, which has a Uruguayan license to produce medical cannabis.

“Uruguay is taking a leadership position in growing high CBD, high value hemp products. So we see that as a great opportunity from a supply chain perspective,” he said, referring to the non-psychoactive cannabidiols that are used in medical products.

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