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
BBS rep / June 18, 2014
The country is going to the dogs with overfed Sinhala Buddhist saffron robed thugs ruling the streets and Udan is talking about smoking ganja.
Well on second thoughts not a bad suggestion. When the powers that be are the real forces behind the bulldog Sinhala Buddhist thugs and the minorities have no recourse but to succumb to the blows with the ‘Kattha’, ‘polla’ (in both senses – the second being the tool used for rape), fire and pillage, the only option seems to be to numb our senses with the ‘weed’ that Udan is trying to promote.
Rajash / June 18, 2014
The country is burning and this guy want to legalise mal unless of course he supplied mal to the mob.
Mal,casino and prostitution miracle of Asia
Upul / June 18, 2014
Dude, if you did not inhale on this trip, you certainly digested some @ the buffet!
Suggesting decriminalising anything in the Sri Lankan context is akin to releasing the criminals in jail saying..crime does happen in an impoverished society, and its the survival of the fittest.
Even Western nations with the resources for policing, social and health networks are stepping into this very guardedly because you cannot bag the cat after the fact! In Sri Lanka, where laws are meant only for the innocent, what exactly is the point? The criminals and politicians running the drug trades do not want to make it legal…that would be counter-productive. Imagine being able to walki into Osusala and order a joint!!!! Its hilarious, even without a joint!!
Maybe Minister Jayasena was enjoying a momentary lapse in judgement, of her colleagues.
Crazyoldmansl / June 18, 2014
Cannabis has been part and parcel of the south asian culture from time immemorial and there are some who trace its history back to the dawn of vedic traditions. I once had the opportunity to discuss this with the then head of the narcotics bureau one Mr Hema Weerasinghe – circa 1980 – who was quite outraged when I argued that the cultivation and export of high quality cannabis should become part of the Sri Lankan plantation economy along with tea rubber and coconut. I pointed out to him that the criminalizing the use of Cannabis was something done by those who imitate the west and who have no respect for or undestanding of south asian culture.
Today with the west beginning to legalize cannabis we see once again this idealization of the west with our western educated liberals rushing to advocate its legalization and cultivation. Nothing has changed and it appears that we will continue to – like obedient apes – to ape the west. So be it and I hope we will follow Dr Udan to the white west that we love so much to imitate.
Spring Koha / June 18, 2014
An interesting article but an highly irresponsible suggestion for this drug, that causes much social mayhem, to be legalised. To give free reign to this drug, in a highly vulnerable population such as ours is, is like giving a monkey a loaded gun. I am saddened that an educated person should write this.
Dude / June 18, 2014
Cool running Udan! Keep it up..
In many states in the US Marijuana is legal and more are going that route..
Marijuana is a far better answer to the “pain of living and the drug of dreams’..
Far better than the violent cocktail of RACIST Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that the IGNORANT and ARROGANT Sinhala MAJORITY masses are HIGH on – spread by the Buddhist monks who live in luxury and are bought and paid for by Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa – the Military dictators and Buddhist emperors of the wonder of Asia.
BudinOz / June 18, 2014
Dude, your statement “In many states in the US Marijuana is legal and more are going that route” is quite misleading.
In some US states like CA, cannabis is issued only to people who got licence to use it due to health reasons. The only country where you can buy it over the counter is Netherlands according to my knowledge.
Paisa Must Appah / June 18, 2014
Im sure this writer is an active member of the DMJ(and son) drug mafia that was involved in the recent import of Kudu by the containerload.
My God! What would our Srilankans not do for money! First we had the Lawyer Mudalalis, then the Doctor Mudalalis. Now, the Kudu Mudalalis.
Peace Lover / June 18, 2014
Not a bad idea but now the problem is scum like K A Sumansekera (LEELA) will also want to get into the ‘mal’ industry and spoil it
new york abey / June 18, 2014
I think most of the above comentators haven’t got the gist of the article.As far as i understand it’s good sarcasm.The writer points out the fact that one can do any illegal thing under the logo SUBHA ANAGATHAYAK without any hindrance from anyinternal or external force for you know what represent this logo.
justice / June 18, 2014
In the sixties,ganja could be purchased on discreet inquiry from roadside boutiques – one had to walk two miles to purchase – along the tanamalwila-wellawaya road.
It was widely used to make meat tender while cooking it,and some wayside eating houses offered meat thus cooked,in the area,and such curries were in high demand.Some resthouses too, offered such meat curries.
In the west,ganja (marihuana)was banned as its addiction was said to lead the person to the purchase of more ‘hard’ drugs,eg.heroin.
Ganja by itself is harmless and only gives a temporary sense of euphoria.
In USA and Canada,growth of Cannabis Indica at home by those certified to benefit from it,for private consumption only,is being allowed in some areas.
Commercial cultivation and export of ganja should be seriously considered.
gamini / June 18, 2014
The Americans are the biggest beneficiaries of Cocaine, Marijuana and Cannabis. In order to maintain a high value, various restrictions are imposed to appear as a counter measure to curb, whereas the idea is to get the best return in the market. If the cultivation is allowed freely the market value will drop. Then the Drug Lords will be the losers in the end. Therefore America via the satellites spot the places where there is commercial scale plantations and inform the relevant Countries and the Authorities to destroy the plantations under the pretext of an Anti-Narcotic Movement. That is how the plantations at Thanamalwila, Moneragala is raided by the Police and destroyed where the cultivators believe their plantations are secure and safe and the Authorities are unaware. The truth is the Americans provide the locations to the local Police, using their GIS Systems in plotting the latitudes for easy location and our farmers wonder who tipped the local Police.
Don Sarath / June 19, 2014
Most of the countries in South America and in many States in USA, sale of Ganja is legalized and is freely available as Wine & Spirits for those who are over 21 years. In some States anyone with a Medical Prescription can buy it from a sales outlet for medicinal use. Now the US Federal Government is considering to free ganja from all restrictions because it has proved that in the States where Ganja is sold freely, the hard drug usage has come down drastically and it is a good money spinner to the State Governments by way of taxes. Ganja is a much better alternative to Hard Drugs like Hashish, Brown Sugar etc. It is only a very few percentage of the population drink alcohol, and Ganja is also smoked only by a small percentage of people.
Like alcohol, Sri Lanka also should make it freely available for those who want to smoke it, so that it will cut down the smuggling and spreading of Hard Drugs, and also will bring revenue to the Government by way of Excise Duties.
It has been proved without any reasonable doubt, from the time immemorial that Ganja has a very high medicinal value that will help cure Cancer and many other chronic illnesses, if people are educated to use it in a proper way. It has been used by ancient Kings and the elite in Sri Lanka and Maharajas and people in high society in India and hole of South Asia for relaxation for over thousands of years. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for many thousands of years, and Ganja is not as bad as Kasippu either. So why not give it a chance?
Santha Karunaratne / June 19, 2014
I Agree that Mal should be legalized but Controlled! It has to have a minimum age limit & all that the Learned Politicians Practically must know! Other wise what are the use of Empty Inefficient Leaders?! Laws have to be revised according to the Modern learning of the Societies & habits & what not?! Example! Do you think Kissing in Public is an Offence?! Man it is a wonderful thing to see two People who Love each other just showing that they Love each other! My Good one must be like to see & experience is more Luckier!
Come on Brothers & Sisters these are not the offences! Pure Corruption is a Crime! but taking a Santhosham without asking is in my Book is ok. Now Please do not get me wrong! Mal smoking is an Art actually but as it is too much Controversial already let us go slow depending on the Public Opinion is better I feel & Believe. Thank you, Humbly Yours, Santha Karunaratne