Despite the growing support for cannabis internationally, and—as previously discussed—the rich history of Ceylonese cannabis culture, there are major barriers standing in the way of a legal future for ganja in Sri Lanka. As we’ll see, these aren’t limited to the law itself. For a country with such a long and rich history of cannabis use, it is striking how strict the taboos against it have become since its prohibition, which was first brought into law in 1936, and progressively tightened by a series of amendments in the 1980s.
Social Taboos Still Reign Supreme
I spoke to a high-ranking government official about the cannabis situation in Sri Lanka, who agreed to talk with me only under conditions of anonymity. According to this official, recreational cannabis use is never seen as acceptable in Sri Lankan society—it is seen as “just another narcotic,” and is heavily associated with “inferior, antisocial, unbecoming behavior.”
He informed us that there has been essentially “no public effort” to promote and legitimize cannabis in Sri Lanka, and that one of the major obstacles ostensibly standing in the way of outright legalization was fear on the part of the authorities that “distribution [would go] out of control.”
He went on: “Nobody supports recreational usage; it need not be recognized in law. Those who are using it, irrespective of social taboo or legal deterrence, will go on using it. The status quo remains.”
The official continued to explain that, in Sri Lanka, social attitudes can be extremely conservative and deeply entrenched. He cited as an example the recent efforts to legalize homosexuality, which were rejected by Sri Lankan lawmakers in January 2017—meaning that gay couples will remain ineligible for the legal protections offered to heterosexual households, and homosexual activity of all forms will remain illegal.
Change Can Happen, But At Glacial Speeds
However, the social situation in Sri Lanka may not be quite as dire as it appears. While the proposal to decriminalize homosexuality may have failed, it was agreed that the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2017-2021 would be updated to include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is far from the ideal outcome, but is at least a small step in the right direction.
In terms of cannabis, the situation is highly complex and nuanced. Although social use is heavily frowned upon in “polite” society, medicinal cannabis has never been completely prohibited, and there has been a system in place for years that allocates Indigenous and Ayurvedic doctors a certain amount of cannabis to use in their preparations.
In recent years, the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine and the Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation has made repeated requests to properly legalize, regulate and license the production of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Some politicians, however, call for legalization across the board. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Sumedha G. Jayasena, stated in 2008: “Even Buddhist monks of the area demand that ganja be legalized. These Bhikkhus come to us and request that laws be amended in Parliament to remove legal barriers to allow free cultivation of ganja.”
Ms. Jayasena, widely known for her conservatism as Minister of Women’s Affairs/Empowerment, has become gradually more pro-cannabis in recent years. If leading conservative thinkers can be persuaded of the benignity and potential of cannabis, perhaps this is a positive indication for wider Sri Lankan society.
What Next For Sri Lankan Cannabis Farmers?
The main hubs for the cultivation of cannabis in Sri Lanka are almost all situated in the south of the country—areas that experienced widespread devastation in May this year, due to the most severe floods the country has seen in over a decade.
The floods have also affected areas known for the production of tea, one of Sri Lanka’s principal exports. The Qatar-based news outlet Al-Jazeera recently reported on the impact of the 2017 floods on the tea farmers of Matara district in the extreme south of the country: “For many of the 400,000 small farmers who grow more than 70 percent of the country’s tea, the floods covered their tea bushes by up to five metres with mud and sludge, leading to the rotting of some roots.”
The article quoted Prabhat Bezbaruah, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, as stating that “almost 300 tonnes of tea and green leaf were destroyed by the floods, while damage to factories is still being assessed . . . the cost of the floods needs to be measured in humanitarian, and not financial, terms. Losses that small farmers have incurred in terms of their lives and property are substantial.”
It seems rather unjust that the plight of Sri Lanka’s tea farmers can be reported openly, while farmers of a different crop are ignored. It’s very likely that homes, land and lives have also been lost in the cannabis-farming communities dotted around Sri Lanka’s southern provinces—yet these communities have no official body to represent them, and no one to decry their loss.
Furthermore, the long-term environmental health of the south of Sri Lanka may be in serious jeopardy, due to the ongoing efforts to realize a project known as the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project (UOMDP). This project aims to deliver water to the southeast of the country via a complex system of tunnels, dams and power stations.
However, construction commenced in 2008, before the government received environmental clearance, despite mass protests from local communities and environmental lobby groups. By now, it has allegedly caused the destruction of 7,000 homes, the desiccation of 3,000 wells and brooks, the depletion of 80 million liters of groundwater per day, and the devastation of farming land. It is now being dubbed the “worst environmental disaster in Sri Lanka.”
Clearly, the future holds many challenges for cannabis farmers and the agricultural sector in general in Sri Lanka. The need for the protection of cannabis farmers’ rights, and of the delicate environmental balance in Sri Lanka, has never been higher.