Introduction of cannabis in Sri Lanka is lost to history but is clearly ancient as evinced by its Sanskrit names: virapati (‘hero-leaved’), capta (‘light-hearted’), ananda (‘bliss’), trilok kamaya (‘desired in three worlds’) and harshini (‘the rejoicers’). These indicate its varied properties, e.g, inducing euphoria and
heightening sexual energy.
In popular parlance today it is called ‘kansaa’.
Arabs are recorded trading cannabis to East Africa along maritime routes that included stops at Sri Lanka as early as the 13th century.
Ample evidence shows trade in cannabis and hashish during medieval times in Asia, Africa and Arabia. Cannabis fiber and seeds are still employed in some rural areas for preparing traditional Ayurvedic medicines and manufacture of hempen textiles and rope.
Despite its importance to seafarers, however, hemp was described in the 17th century as being little cultivated there, perhaps because in 1675, the Dutch colonial rulers banned trafficking of narcotics, including opium and cannabis -- a ban repeatedly renewed in the 19th and 20th centuries after the island was subjected to British rule (1815).
Today, industrial hemp is allowed by law for fiber suited to manufacture of rope or cordage, but still not much is produced or exported. The country has imported about US$500,000 worth of raw hemp since 2000 -- roughly US$27,000 per year.
Among the population of roughly 22 million some 600,000 -- mostly from higher socio-economic strata -- are presently believed to use cannabis as a recreational drug.
It is by far the most commonly used illicit drug in Sri Lanka today.
Cannabis cultivation, import, export, supply, manufacture, use, or possession of most parts of the plant -- including the seeds, leaves, roots, flower buds and resin -- were prohibited by the nine ordinances issued between 1929 to 1955 that form the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Acts of 1936, 1984 and 1986. Penalties carry maximum fines of 25,000 rupees (US$141.88) and seven years imprisonment --though the maximum is rarely awarded for possession of small quantities.
Illicit cannabis covers perhaps 500 hectares in the country, according to estimates. Raids, arrests and seizures are common.
Cannabis plays a major role in the relatively wealthy and densely populated island’s cultural traditions. Ayurvedic folk medicine, much of which is based on the various properties of cannabis, remains popular and had 16,000 practitioners in an estimate from 2004.
Provisions of the Ayurveda Act of 1961 (amended 1962 and 1977) permit registered practitioners to obtain cannabis for making and selling Ayurvedic
preparations containing cannabis, as, for example, Madana Modaka Gulis, made from cannabis leaves and seeds fried in local herbs and ghee.
Ayurvedic practitioners have hitherto obtained cannabis from suppliers licensed by the Department of Ayurveda’s commissioner thereof, but restrictions on cultivation and export result in a processed powder of substandard quality for medical preparations made from illicit cannabis seized by police.
So, to address this issue and also profit from growing demand for medical cannabis products abroad, Sri Lanka’s government has begun a program of mass cultivation, with cannabis plantations in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts announced for planting in March 2018. Their 100 acres are expected to yield more than 25 tonnes of medical marijuana a year for export to the US, while supplying a percentage of licensed local Ayurveda practitioners’ demand.
Cultivation is supervised by the army with oversight from the Ministry
of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine.
The island has not played a major part in the trade of cannabis and its derivative products so far, but, as in so many other places, that circumstance may change: in January 2019, major Australian pharmaceutical firm Creso announced that a deal had been signed with Ceyoka Health -- one of Sri Lanka’s top pharmaceutical distribution companies -- to sell the former’s cannAFFORD lozenges, a cannabis-based pain treatment, locally via authorized providers. Regulatory acceptance was expected.
Approval may signal authorities’ willingness to open Sri Lanka’s market further.