Sri Lanka Sri Lanka, the ‘teardrop of India’, is an island nation situated just 30km from the town of Kanyakumari that lies on the south-eastern tip of India. Sri Lanka enjoys a warm tropical climate and a long growing season, with extremes of temperature mediated by ocean winds; potent, long-flowering varieties of cannabis flourish here.
History of cannabis in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s recorded history dates back to over 3,000 years before present (BP), but it is widely believed that early humans first inhabited the island as long ago as 125,000 years BP. The island has been of great strategic importance in international shipping for centuries, if not millennia; it has deep harbours and forgiving approaches, and its location—nestled at the foot of India, ideally placed for ships coming from the north on their way to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa—made it an important part of the southern Silk Road routes of antiquity.
It was along these routes that cannabis is thought to have first arrived in East Africa around 700 years ago (records suggest Arab traders brought it to Mozambique from Asia in around the 13th century), so it is likely that cannabis has been known and utilised on the island long before this. There is ample evidence that cannabis and hashish was actively traded throughout the medieval period in Asia, Africa and the Arab world. Cannabis was also in minor use for its fibre and seeds, and remains so to this day in some rural areas.
Cannabis in colonial Ceylon
Due to its strategic importance and natural resources, Sri Lanka has been fought over by various powers over the centuries. In the early 17th century, Portugal controlled Sri Lanka, before losing power to the Dutch after local leaders invited the latter to liberate the island. In 1675, the Dutch colonial rulers of the time issued a decree banning the trafficking of narcotics including opium and cannabis, suggesting that an active trade had been going on for some time prior to the edict. In 1815, the British took control of the island after the Dutch government, weakened by successive wars, voluntarily relinquished their rights.
In the mid-19th century, British control of India and the surrounding territories was extended and consolidated. It was during this period that the international trade in cannabis and hashish originating in Afghanistan and British India truly intensified—as well as that in opium and cocaine. In fact, by around 1860 Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) was actually home to several coca plantations run by the British, which may have still been in operation by the start of the Second World War. In 1948, Sri Lanka became an independent nation.
Cannabis is by far the most commonly used illicit drug in Sri Lanka today, closely followed by heroin, which is increasingly en vogue amongst youths in Colombo and other urban areas. As well as being widely used as a recreational drug, cannabis is of great significance in the local Ayurvedic traditional pharmacopoeia. Cannabis is typically referred to as kansa (for the growing plant) and ganja (for the flowering tops).
Cannabis in Sri Lankan Ayurvedic medicine
The tradition of Ayurvedic medicine remains strong in Sri Lanka, with an estimated 16,000 practitioners in 2004. Cannabis is widely used in the Sri Lankan tradition, with the specific Sinhalese or Sanskrit names virapati (“hero-leaved”), capta (“light-hearted”), ananda (“bliss”), trilok kamaya (“desired in three worlds”) and harshini (“the rejoicers”) indicating its various properties, such as inducing euphoria and heightening sexual energy.
Traditionally, registered Ayurvedic practitioners would obtain cannabis for use in their preparations by applying to the Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation with details of their intended recipes; the Corporation would then supply cannabis in powdered form according to requirements. According to reports, the Corporation obtained its cannabis at no cost, from no other source than the police themselves. Interestingly, it seems that cannabis seized in raids on illicit commercial plantations was given to the Corporation by police if local magistrates dealing with the cultivation cases directed them to do so!
However, it seems that this unusual situation may be entirely phased out in the very near future. Some of the most troubling examples of the clash between traditional medicinal practices and modern attitudes to cannabis use are currently occurring in Sri Lanka over use of a traditional Ayurvedic remedy known locally as madana modaka. Madana modaka contains cannabis, coriander, and various local herbs, and is still in widespread use in Sri Lanka for its perceived restorative, rejuvenative and aphrodisiac properties.
Madana modaka, a traditional Sri Lankan cannabis medicine
In recent years, Ayurvedic pharmacies have been subject to police raids; packages of madana modaka have been seized and destroyed, and the vendors arrested and often imprisoned. Perhaps the first instance of this phenomenon being reported was in 2002, when the patient of an Ayurvedic practitioner in Udalawale in southern Sri Lanka was arrested for possession of the substance. When the practitioner himself went to the police station to complain about the arrest, arguing that the medicine was made with ingredients obtained from the Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation, he too was arrested, and apparently also subject to verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Sri Lanka’s notoriously brutal police.
Since then, reports have been relatively frequent. In September 2014, a man was arrested in Chilaw, North Western Province after being found in possession of 1,000 pellets. In November 2013, an Ayurvedic pharmacy in Labugama village, Central District was raided following a tip-off; police discovered 145 pellets of madana modaka weighing 2 kg in total. In July 2012, an unidentified individual was arrested in Embilipitiya, Ratnapura District in possession of 20 pellets of the medicine. A recurring theme with madana modaka (as well as with other controlled substances in Sri Lanka) is the idea that practitioners are ‘targeting children’ with their products. In May 2014, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa instructed police to target individuals suspected of selling illicit drugs such as madana modaka near schools.
Clearly, the battle is far from over. In 2008 it was reported that the Sri Lankan Ministry of Indigenous Medicine had formally requested permission to use of around thirty-five acres of land to cultivate cannabis, for use in a number of important Ayurvedic remedies. At the time of the report, the Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation was still receiving cannabis from the courts; however, this supply was deemed inadequate as it had typically been stored improperly for some time prior to being released from police storage, and was usually markedly reduced in potency and efficacy compared to freshly harvested cannabis. It is not clear what the outcome of this particular case was, but reports have indicated that the government is engaged in growing cannabis for the Ayurvedic market, and the Corporation continues to list madana modaka on its product list.
Cultivated and wild cannabis in Sri Lanka
Cannabis is widely cultivated in Sri Lanka, with main hubs of activity generally occurring in the drier Eastern, Southern and Uva Provinces. Wild cannabis also thrives throughout much of the country. In 2003, it was estimated that the total area of land under cannabis cultivation was 500 hectares, and it is believed that cultivation is on the increase. The local types found in Sri Lanka generally exhibit the classic South Asian ‘sativa’ look, which is generally now agreed to be a subtype of C. sativa sp. indica by botanists. Sri Lankan cannabis is tall, graceful and many-branched, with widely-spaced internodes and slender, dark green leaves. It supplies a clear, cerebral high with little drowsiness, and is known for its floral, citrus and peppermint flavours and aromas.
Hashish is rarely seized by counternarcotics officials, and what little is found is typically Indian, Pakistani or Afghani; It does not appear that hashish is produced locally. This would stand to reason as very few tropical countries with humid climates produce hashish, no doubt due to the fact that excessive moisture can cause disastrous mould problems when curing and storing the product. Almost every country that traditionally produces hashish in commercial quantities is semi-arid to arid, and the hotter and damper of the hash-producing countries tend to make their best grades in mountainous regions, which are generally well ventilated, cooler and drier than lowlands in the same latitude.
In July 2013, the largest cannabis plantation thus far found in Sri Lanka was discovered in Yala National Park, which lies in Uva and Southern Provinces. The plantation was large and remarkably well-equipped, with solar cells, solar-powered irrigation systems and supplementary lighting. Two individuals were arrested in connection with the plantation, and it is believed that up to twenty individuals were employed on a daily basis at the site. Since the mid-1990s, Sri Lankan counter-narcotics officials have routinely carried out eradication efforts, but there is little consistent data on exactly how much is eradicated.
Cannabis trafficking in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka produces significant quantities of cannabis, and exports its surplus to nearby destination countries such as Australia, as well as destinations as far away as Europe. However, it also imports cannabis and hashish from India and other nearby producer countries. Imported cannabis is not necessarily associated with superior quality, and in some cases may be noticeably inferior and cheaper than the local products; however, it seems that the domestic consumer market is lively enough to warrant maintaining a healthy variety of different products to suit varying tastes and budgets.
A major hub for the traffic in illegal narcotics is the Bandaranaike International Airport, which as tourism has increased in recent years has seen a vast increase in overall visitor numbers. The influx has proved rather too large to effectively police, and contraband has been slipping through customs in increasing quantities. The airport sees significant quantities of cocaine entering the country, as well as large amounts of heroin and hashish from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan leaving the country en route to final destinations in Europe and the Americas.
Drug trafficking and the Sri Lankan Civil War
In 1983 the Sri Lankan civil war began, and was to last almost twenty-six years, ending in 2009. The war was fought between the ruling Sinhalese administration against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE; commonly known as the Tamil Tigers) of northern Sri Lanka, and rose to a crescendo of violence and extrajudicial killings on both sides that devastated the social fabric of the country. Five years after the war officially ended, hostilities have not fully died down, providing justification for the maintenance of a repressive police state (which, arguably, is what the rebels were fighting against in the first place).
Prior to 2009, Sri Lanka was relatively free from drug trafficking, although it occurred on a minor scale, often facilitated by corrupt officials or rebel groups in need of funding. In particular, the LTTE has been accused by the US Embassy in Sri Lanka of essentially controlling trafficking operations in the north of the country throughout the years of civil war—although this is questionable, as they went on to predict a drop in trafficking following cessation of fighting, which has been proved entirely incorrect.
Lobby groups and activists in Sri Lanka place the blame for the increase in trafficking on inconsistent policing and an increase in state corruption, as well as the fact that increased tourism has caused the country to become increasingly attractive to traffickers. Heroin and cannabis are the most frequently seized illicit narcotics in Sri Lanka; of the two, heroin is generally seen as a far greater problem, although cannabis does not escape the attention of the authorities.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has strict penalties for possession, sale and trafficking of illicit narcotics. Possession and trafficking of less than 5 kg of cannabis is considered a minor offence, and is typically punishable by fines or short custodial sentences. Possession, sale and trafficking of larger quantities of cannabis are considered serious offences, and are punishable by fines and longer custodial sentences at the judge’s discretion.
In 2004, the death penalty (which had been suspended in 1976) was reinstated for crimes including drug trafficking (although apparently only for cocaine and heroin), rape and murder. However, there have been no executions for any crime since 2004; death sentences are sometimes given out for drug trafficking, but these are automatically commuted to life imprisonment.
Seizures and arrests have steadily increased since 2009, with 19,000 being arrested on drug charges in 2009, 30,000 in 2010, and 42,000 in 2011. In 2012, almost 48,000 individuals were arrested for drug-related offences; of these, 22,700 were arrested for crimes involving cannabis.
Cannabis legalisation efforts in Sri Lanka
Although the Sri Lankan government’s stance towards cannabis is mostly hostile, the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine and the Department of Ayurveda have long defended the right of the Sri Lankan population to use cannabis in the centuries-old traditional manner. In December 2013, it was announced that the Minister for Indigenous Medicine, Salinda Dissanayake had introduced a bill in Parliament calling for the ban on cannabis to be lifted.
Dissanayake is actually not the first of his ilk to call for legalisation of cannabis—his predecessor Tissa Karaliyadda made similar efforts. Under their proposed framework, traditional Ayurvedic practitioners would be permitted to cultivate small quantities of cannabis solely for medicinal purposes. However, it appears that the bill is not widely supported, and is unlikely to lead to any meaningful change in the near future.
Purchasing and using cannabis in Sri Lanka
It is generally easy to source cannabis in Sri Lanka, but it is imperative to exercise caution as police are always on the lookout for illegal activity, if for no other reason than to extract bribes. Street dealers may also work in tandem with corrupt police officers, so finding a good connection is advisable. Tourists can expect quality to be mediocre, occasionally good. Seeds, stalks and leaves are usually present in abundance. Longer-term residents may have better luck securing high-quality local supplies, or imports from India. Kerala cannabis is a fairly common high-quality option in Sri Lanka, but local types may be just as impressive with the right connection.
Security measures in Colombo and other urban areas remain high following the cessation of the civil war. At night, police patrols are common, and random stop-and-searches on individuals and vehicles are often reported. Smoking in public is never advisable. The beaches to the south of Colombo are reported to be frequented by local dealers, and police presence there is far lower than in the city itself. However, if in the city, asking in bars and clubs or approaching tuk-tuk drivers are common methods of securing a supply.
Prices for cannabis in Sri Lanka vary according to quality and reliability of source. Tourists can expect to pay more than locals, as a general rule; for a kilogram, the price for a foreigner in 2002-2003 was 2,000 Sri Lankan rupees, and 1,500 Rs for a local. A small bag bought from a tuk-tuk driver costs around 200 – 250 Rs, and around 300 Rs from a club.
We are currently working to compile up-to-date information on cannabis use and legislation in every country throughout the world. To this end, we welcome your information, advice, opinions and corrections.