By Udan Fernando –
Let’s face it. A certain section of the Sri Lankan population cutting across the class divide smokes weed. The same holds true for the tourists in Sri Lanka. Together they actually sustain a steady, perhaps even growing demand for weed, which is better known as cannabis, marijuana or kansaa/ganja. Now in Sri Lanka, cannabis is illegal to grow, sell and possess and can be punishable under the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Act No.13 of 1984 with an exception made in the case of usage for medicinal purposes. So, illegally or otherwise, there’s a real demand.
The plant, admittedly, does not grow by itself to meet this demand. Instead, there is an organized network of investors, growers, laborers, brokers and distributors which runs this industry as an unrecorded economic activity in the country. Sri Lanka’s Anti-Narcotics agency SLANA estimates that about 500 hectares of land is used to grow cannabis. The exact figure could be higher and no one knows the volume of business generated.
As Malvana is for Rambutan and Kalutara is for Mangustine, for Cannabis it is Thanamalwila. The colloquial reference to the stuff by the faithful users is mal, and the name derives from where it is largely grown – Thanamalwila, an area in the Moneragala District. Some call it pushpe, a synonym for mal, which is the Sinhala word for flower. Those fluent in Sinhala and literature call it thrailokya vijayam pathram, a Sanskrit term for the leaf that makes you attain all of the three worlds!
Spending a few days in Thanamalwila a couple of weeks ago, I reflected on the plant, the industry, and the people connected to it. After all, this is Sri Lanka’s only indigenous drug. Undoubtedly, it deserves the accreditation of ‘Be Sri Lankan-Buy Sri Lankan’, a trade campaign and accreditation body to promote indigenous businesses.
The current Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sumedha G Jayasena ,MP Moneragala District, dropped a bombshell at a public meeting in one of her constituencies in January this year. Ms Jayasena made a strong case to legalize weed. She claimed that even the Buddhist monks in her constituency area are pleading to legalize weed. Now, this is coming from a former Deputy Minister for the Buddha Sasana! Known for her conservativeness while she was the Minister of Women’s Affairs & Social Welfare and Minister of Child Development & Women’s Empowerment, Ms. Jayasena, now 62 years old, makes this bold statement.
How would The Case for Mal be received by the Parliament which has a strong lobby against smoking, drinking and drugs led by some of the constituents of the government? But there’s a little hitch. After all, this is our own ‘home-grown’ product. Presumably, no foreign element is involved and it is not (yet) construed as a Western conspiracy.
It is alleged that the mal industry is run under the patronage of the local politicians; the siblings and offspring of the politicians are allegedly coordinating the supply chain. Allegations include the use of official vehicles to transport the supplies. The Prados, Pajeros and Monteros are not subject to routine checking or targeted raids by the Police or the Anti-Narcotics staff. In October 2012, the official vehicle of Thanmalwila’s Divisional Secretary was ceased by the Hambegamuwa Police as it carried 23 kilos of cannabis.
During my stay in Thanamalwila, I met a woman: Kusum, aged 37. Kusum’s parents forced her to marry at the tender age of 16. This coercion by the parents was triggered by fear of Kusum getting pregnant as their neighbor’s teenage daughter had. Kusum went on to have four children. Both Kusum and her husband were engaged in agriculture until the latter died tragically of an attack by an elephant; a common occurrence in the Moneragala District – aliya gahalaa marenawaa.
Kusum’s two elder sons, now 20 and 19 years old were given to the temple to be ordained as monks. The two younger children, 16 and 13 are with Kusum who fears that her teenage daughter may get pregnant or the son may commit suicide. These are common occurrences in Moneragala district, which until recently, recorded the highest suicide rate in the country. I asked her what she did for a living. Kusum’s answer was Kulee weda karanawaa and NGO rasweem walata sahabhaagi wenawaa (working as a laborer and attending NGO meetings).
I met another young man, Saman, in Thanamalwila. His story wasn’t as depressing as Kusum’s. Saman and his brother run a guest house and a restaurant on the Thanamalwila-Wellawaya road. The business is owned by their father who is said to be a member of the Presidential Security Division (PSD) but now attached to the newly opened International Airport in Mattala. Saman says that their house is just next door– allapu waete – to the President’s ancestral house in Beliatta. The guest house has 14 rooms and the restaurant’s buffet seems to attract a good traffic of domestic and foreign tourists.
Curiously the buffet offers a good spread of meats which are hard to find and I was reassured by a cheerful Saman of more varieties of meat and a feast to make my body groan– enga ridenna kanna dennam, sir! Large photos of Saman’s father and President Rajapaksha adorn many walls in the restaurant and guest-house. But what really arrested my attention was the logo-like sign high on the building: the flower of the Subha Anaagathayak (Happy Future) campaign of President Mahinda Rajapaksha. The same flower-design in white and blue had been cropped and adopted as the logo of the business.
Leaving Thanamalwila, I dreamed of a future where mal is finally legalized.
Both Kusum and Saman could officially be part of the mal industry. Kusum would have a decent income and be spared the anxiety of child pregnancies and suicides. Saman would continue to offer rare meats and there would be no religious extremists threatening to set themselves aflame in order to curb the meat-eating. Ms. Jayasena and the Buddhist monks in her constituency will promote mal as a cottage industry or self-employment. And another thing: could the president’s campaign, Subha Anaagathyak’s very own mala be used as the logo of Thanamalwila, perhaps, when it is officially declared as the Mal Capital of Sri Lanka?
*Photographs by Dr Udan Fernando