– Tens of thousands of Colombians died in the U.S.-backed war on drugs. But after an official about-face on marijuana, Colombia is looking to exchange gun-toting traffickers for corporate backers in a bid to become the Saudi Arabia of legal pot.

The new industry is budding here on the outskirts of Medellin, where Pablo Escobar moved marijuana in the 1970s before becoming the “King of Cocaine.” Fifteen years after his death in a last stand with the law, cannabis plants are blooming in the emerald hills beyond the city, this time with the government’s blessing.

“You are looking at history,” beamed Camilo Ospina, the lab-coat-wearing chief innovation officer for PharmaCielo Colombia Holdings, gesturing like a showman before a sprawling greenhouse of pungent cannabis plants. His company is one of a fast-rising number of corporations seeking to leverage the “made in Colombia” label in a new age of legalization.

“Our advantage is that the Colombian brand already has a mystique,” he said. “We want to intensify that, so that the Colombian cannabis you already know … is the cannabis you want to buy.”

Colombia is still a hotbed of illegal drugs: A report last year from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency showed Colombia as the source of 92 percent of cocaine seized on U.S. soil. And after 18 years and $10 billion spent on Plan Colombia, the U.S.-funded effort to counter cartels and coca farmers, cocaine production here is at all-time highs.

Yet when it comes to marijuana, Colombia is taking a new tack: If you can’t beat ’em, regulate ’em.

In 2016, the country passed a landmark law legalizing medical marijuana for both domestic use and export, laying the groundwork for the new industry. The government started handing out the first licenses to grow, process and export medicinal cannabis in September, approving 33 companies so far.

Becoming the world’s supplier of legal cannabis won’t be easy. The biggest potential market, the United States, remains closed off, with even states that have legalized use banning cannabis imports. Yet other countries, including Germany, Peru, Italy and Croatia, are seen as fast-developing export markets for medical marijuana.

Canada and the Netherlands, on the cutting edge of the legal pot business, have started to meet that demand, with several companies already exporting domestically cultivated crops.

But Colombia, officials here say, is the logical place for the industry’s future.

Rather than part of the problem, marijuana is being viewed as one solution to Colombia’s struggle against illicit narcotics — particularly coca leaf, the building block of cocaine. Perhaps it is time, authorities say, for coca farmers to start seeing legal marijuana as a potentially lucrative substitute crop.

“The message is, go the legal route with marijuana,” said Andrés López Velasco, head of Colombia’s National Narcotics Fund, the government agency overseeing legal cannabis. “You can keep your know-how, your knowledge of how to cultivate. But do it legally.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Some authorities in the regions where companies are set to start growing commercial marijuana remain cautious. They fear cultivation of stronger strains popular with recreational users, which are also permitted under the rules issued in September, may undermine the image of the budding pot industry as purely pharmaceutical.

Other critics insist the government is sending a negative signal to children, while rekindling the image of Colombia as the world’s factory for controlled substances.

“By saying it can be commercially grown and has a medicinal use, we are telling our children not only that marijuana is not bad but that it’s actually good for your health,” said Rafael Nieto, a former vice justice minister and conservative politician. “I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that.”