Everything else.. Status Update on Legalising Marijuana in Sri Lanka- Why and Why Not

Status Update on Legalising Marijuana in Sri Lanka- Why and Why Not

2021 Mar 11

Cannabis legalisation is expanding exponentially across the globe but it is still a banned substance in Sri Lanka with over 50,000 kilos nabbed annually by anti-narcotics officials each year. It is also responsible for the most number of arrests, usually about 25,000 people, and drug convictions make up nearly 60% of Sri Lanka’s entire prison population.  

To understand this quagmire, let us dive into the history of this plant in our country, the legal framework and why it may be our economy’s and healthcares’ saving grace.

The history of marijuana in Sri Lanka

Ayurveda is the cornerstone of  Sri Lankan culture and has been traditionally used in Sri Lanka for centuries, with Ayurvedic medicine still widely practised today. Cannabis is an important ingredient of many of the medicines, and the different varieties are given various Sinhalese or Sanskrit names, such as:

Virapati (‘hero-leaved’)

Capta (‘light-hearted’)

Ananda (‘bliss’)

Trilok kamaya (‘desired in three worlds’)

These names indicate the specific properties of each, referring to benefits such as inducing a euphoric state or heightening energy.

Contrary to popular belief, marijuana was used for thousands of years with the earliest records of its use in the Indian subcontinent dating as far back as 2000 BC, during the Vedic period. 

Ven Bengamuwe Nalaka Thero affirmed that even Lord Buddha had identified its medicinal benefits.  He was backed up by other personalities such as Dr Anil Jayaweera, the secretary of the Federation, Dr Sarath Kotteyawatte, and many others. They firmly pointed out that cannabis has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and was banned during colonial times as the rulers wanted to promote Western medicine. He asked the Government to systematically legalise cannabis cultivation, considering a system of licenses to ensure a controlled programme.

Despite cannabis being embedded in the rich history of our island, it is illegal and the Government takes a tough stance on consumption, possession and sale of the substance, doling out fines and prison sentences to those that transgress.

Current legal framework

The Poisons, Opium, and Dangerous Drugs Act 

“No person shall collect, prepare, process, sell or offer for sale, manufacture, store, obtain or have in his possession, distribute or use (a) any resin obtained from the hemp plant for the preparations or extracts from the hemp plant commonly known as bhang, hashish or ganja or any other preparation of which such resin forms apart.”

No person shall, without the licence of the Minister, sow, plant, cultivate, obtain, or have in his possession any poppy plant, coca plant, or hemp plant, or collect or have in his possession the seeds, pods, leaves, flowers, or any part of any such plant.”

So essentially, it is illegal to grow, consume, sell or supply cannabis unless it is for medical purposes (and grown by state-hired farmers).

Sri Lanka has strict penalties in place for possession of cannabis. If it’s five kilos or less, this is typically regarded as a minor offence, and the punishment is likely to be a fine or a short prison sentence. Possessing larger quantities is considered a more serious offence. In this instance, offenders receive bigger fines and longer prison sentences, at the discretion of the judge.

However, even though it’s illegal, it is purported that cannabis is still cultivated across the country, particularly in the eastern and southern provinces. Sri Lankan officials routinely destroy or seize the harvest from cannabis plantations once they’re discovered.

The Secretary of Defence recently expressed that over 6000 persons have been arrested in possession or peddling illicit drugs, in the recent past. However, he mentioned that the actual number of illicit drug users in Sri Lanka is likely to exceed 600,000, approximately 2.5% of our population. He also stated that a large extent of land is already under illegal cannabis cultivation.

Recent updates on the cannabis legalisation journey

We have witnessed a surge in public interest in the cannabis debate with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa moving towards pushing policy decisions recently to legalise cannabis and develop it as a medicinal crop in the future. With this, we also see many others push along the legalisation of this plant which includes academic in natural sciences, Dr Wasantha Weliange, and Ven Bengamuwe Nalaka Thero, Chairman of The Federation of Traditional Medical Practitioners of Sri Lanka and notable members of parliament and influential members of the public and private sector.

The first wave of public excitement on the matter was when it was plastered all over the headlines that there was to be a launch of a cannabis plantation to export it to the US. 

But despite shifting narratives, there are still polarising views towards the legalisation of marijuana currently. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is taking a tough stance against the legalisation of Marijuana, telling parliament that legal action against the marijuana legalisation campaign is being contemplated.

He said “an investigation has been launched in order to break the campaign promoting cannabis” being carried out through various media and legal action will be taken against the relevant parties after seeking advice from the Attorney General.

However, confusingly enough, the Prime Minister also said that a committee of specialists has been appointed according to section 8 of the National Dangerous Drug Control Board Act no 11 of 1984 to study the ability to grow cannabis in Sri Lanka and manufacture products based on them and as well as identify its harmful effects. (Colombo October 7, 2020)

ALL WHILE the STF has cracked down further on those infringing the laws with suspects being arrested for cultivating cannabis across the country.

Why not? Local paths taken

Despite cannabis’ illegality, authorities have acknowledged its medical potential. When batches are seized by law enforcement, small portions are often allocated to Ayurvedic practitioners to develop into medicine. The marijuana plant contains more than 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids. Each one has a different effect on the body. Extensive research found that CBD was effective in treating a number of health problems including stress, anxiety, joint pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), menstrual cramps, nausea, insomnia, addiction, cancer, epilepsy, autism, multiple sclerosis, other autoimmune disorders, as well as schizophrenia.

Even with the potential side effects, more and more research is showing that cannabis is a safer option to treat pain than many of the prescription pill options currently available.

A Nawaloka company – Ceyoka Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals entered into an agreement with Australian cannabis producer Creso Pharma to import cannAFFORD 50 – a chronicle and severe pain-relieving medication comprised of the cannabis extract cannabidiol (CBD).

Ceyoka Healthcare Chief Executive Officer, W.S. Premakumara, said that “This product will help those with severe pain such as post-accident pain, post-surgical pain, and pain during cancer treatment.’’ He went on to further say ‘The lack of any psychotropic effects and the fact that it’s a plant-based product and not artificially manufactured is the real clincher here.”

He said that if approved, it would be available only in select pharmacies that are registered with the Ministry of Health and would only be purchasable with a prescription issued by a medical professional.

In the local medicine space, we see a rising need for cannabis, with Rajitha Senaratne, the former Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, commenting that: “Many Ayurvedic doctors have complained that they don’t get good quality cannabis for their preparations. Good cannabis is a vital ingredient in the preparation of traditional medicine.” Prior to this amendment to the law, practitioners were relying on black-market cannabis that had previously been seized by the police. Senaratne added: “By the time our native doctors get this cannabis, it is about four to five years old and it has lost its effectiveness.”

To keep a pulse on the next stages of this journey stay tuned to our page and comment below and tell us your stance on cannabis legalisation in Sri Lanka.