Sri Lanka, the resplendent teardrop of the Indian Ocean, is well known for its abundant, bountiful riches—fine silks, jewels fit for royalty, hand-plucked tea and spices to delight the palate.
But what far fewer people know about is the rich history of cannabis use within the tradition of Sri Lankan herbal medicine. Similar to Ayurveda, yet a distinct school of thought in its own right, Sri Lankan Indigenous medicine has been practiced on the island for over 2,500 years. I’ve traveled to Sri Lanka to meet with Indigenous doctors who specialize in cannabis use to discuss their work and traditions in more detail.
First on the list is Dr. Hasitha Kothalawala, a dynamic man in his early thirties. Dr. Kothalawala comes from a prominent family of Indigenous doctors, and his father, Dr. P.S. Kothalawala, was chairman of the Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation—the agency responsible for supplying Ayurvedic and Indigenous doctors with the plants required to make their medicines.
When they need cannabis, the doctors are supplied with contraband seized from illegal dealers. While the situation is apparently stable, it’s far from ideal. If nothing else, the cannabis is too dry and old to be medicinally useful by the time it passes through the courts and into the doctors’ hands.
Dr. Kothalawala and I met at the Mount Lavinia Hotel in the south of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. The former residence of the British Governor of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), and a perfect example of colonial architecture, this magnificent building seems an oddly fitting place for our discussion of the history of cannabis prohibition in Sri Lanka.
For it was the period of colonial rule in Sri Lanka that not only saw cannabis established as a commercial cash crop (along with its legal counterpart, the humble tea bush), but also saw the beginning of prohibition itself. The colonial masters of this rich, fertile land (first the Dutch, and later the British) periodically sought to either stamp out the trade that quietly flourished, or to fully commercialize and exploit it for their own ends.
Indeed, one jarring truth regarding the current global trend towards cannabis legalization is that it is far from universal. In fact, the developed West is surging forward with legislative reform far quicker than Asia, Africa and the rest of the world, resulting in an economic “power grab” that channels cannabis revenues straight into the pockets of north American and European hands, and leaves traditional cannabis-producing countries in the dust.
This is far from a new reality. Although Amsterdam may seem a liberal paradise for cannabis users, in reality, it is a grey-market economic machine that generates vast profits—and a good proportion of those profits are generated off the back of illicit imports of Moroccan and Afghani hashish, the producers of which are paid a small fraction of its ultimate sale price in Amsterdam coffee shops. In this paradigm, the developed nation takes far more than the less-developed, and does far less work.
Currently, there seems to be a growing sense of resentment from some citizens of traditional cannabis-producing countries such as India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Why should the West have the power to push for unfair international laws that just 50 years later it would begin to break—and all while developing nations remain forced to toe the line, knowing that their transgressions will be punished more harshly by the international community?
It may be some years before the ripples of international change are truly felt in this corner of south Asia. The small, vulnerable island is still recovering from far more severe changes in its recent past; the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which saw over 30,000 deaths in Sri Lanka alone, and the thirty-year civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils that saw over 80,000 deaths and one million displaced.
Now, just eight years after the war officially ended, it would seem there are more pressing political matters to think about than a plant which Sri Lankan society tends to view as the domain of village doctors and drug addicts.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka is a country that has seen its agricultural economy ruined by decades of war, and is in dire need of rural reconstruction and redevelopment. Thus, there may well be an opportunity for the supporters of Sri Lankan cannabis to gain a foothold—if the argument and approach is correct.
Dr. Kothalawala firmly believes in the use of cannabis in medicine, and it is champions like him that Sri Lanka needs, to lift this historic plant from the mire of taboo and raise it to its traditionally elevated status. He hosts a weekly television program in which he regularly promotes the use of cannabis in medicine, and tells me he receives hundreds of calls daily from people wishing to know more.
He also wishes to set up tours of Sri Lanka’s Indigenous medicine scene, which will feature workshops, classes, farm visits—and, of course, a world of luxurious and healthful treatments—for those wishing to know more about the traditions of medicinal cannabis, from the people who have been practicing the art the longest.