COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – He wants to recultivate the island’s traditions surrounding the cannabis plant, which goes back more than 6,000 years, and he has tens of thousands of Facebook followers rooting for him.
But Wasantha Sena Weliange, Sri Lanka’s leading weed scholar and influencer who has a PhD in the natural sciences, was recently arrested.
His followers did not take it well. “The police should be ashamed. Release him!,” one follower said on Facebook.
Weliange was charged with cannabis cultivation, an act that, along with possession and use of marijuana, has been illegal in the country since the late 1800s.
Weliange had recently been experimenting on cultivating the cannabis plant the way his ancestors did, and he planned to demonstrate the method’s immense potential in producing lucrative exports. However, the budding plants from Weliange’s first cultivation were confiscated by the police during his arrest and were presented in court as evidence against him.
Weliange has dedicated his abilities to tracing the indigenous technology of cultivating cannabis that has all but disappeared from the island nation. Following folklore and historical documents, Weliange’s research into the history and medicinal use of cannabis in ancient Sri Lanka has been published as two best-selling books, which gained him a cult following in the country. Thriloka Wijaya Pathra, a Facebook group named after his book, has been one of the county’s most active groups of cannabis users, with over 180,000 members. His own Facebook page has over 109,000 followers.
On social media, another one of Weliange’s followers cried foul over the arrest: “With the soaring number of deaths and acts of violence reported across the world on uses of alcohol and tobacco, they still remain massively monopolised ‘legal’ industries. Meanwhile, cannabis, with its proven therapeutic and medicinal properties, remains a massively monopolised ‘illegal’ industry and a cash crop.”
“There were attempts to protest and take to the streets, even,” Welianga told VICE World News. “But that is not the point of what we are trying to do. A protest is not the correct method to achieve what we want. There is a scientific way to achieve the goal of legalisation,” he said.
Weliange was released on bail a day after his arrest. His next court hearing is set for Nov. 11. He does not expect to come out the victor.
“Technically, I will be found guilty because, under the current laws, it is illegal to cultivate cannabis. But this is a good thing – more people are talking about what we are trying to do now. This was not a failed experiment for me,” he said. “We have received another opportunity now.”
Sri Lanka’s relationship with cannabis is complicated.
Throughout its history, native medical practitioners have used cannabis to treat various illnesses. In 341 A.D., King Buddadasa wrote the medical pharmacopoeia Sarartha Sangrahaya describing the medicinal properties of cannabis. According to Weliange, cannabis is not a plant endemic to Sri Lanka, and he suspects that it was brought in and introduced by Arab traders, Chinese merchants and Indian scholars.
However, the plant was criminalised under British colonial rule in 1935 (The Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1935). After gaining independence, Sri Lanka started permitting registered Ayurvedic doctors to use cannabis for medicinal purposes in 1967. But, according to Weliange, the practitioners were not allowed to keep more than two plants.
Today, Sri Lanka still considers cannabis a “dangerous drug,” and its recreational use can result in fines and years of incarceration. Despite this, cannabis is the most-used illicit drug in the island country, with an estimated 600,000 users according to a UN study. In 2019, the highest number of cannabis-related cases were reported from the country’s capital Colombo, where over 7000 kilograms of the plant were seized, according to the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board.
Sri Lankan police often raid cannabis plantations, set them on fire and arrest traditional farmers. Many of these farmers, who follow ancestral methods of cultivation, are now too afraid to continue.
“There are at least 10 farmers who work with me, who used to cultivate kansa [local term used for cannabis] but after they were arrested, they are too afraid to do it,” Weliange said.
“The opposition to cannabis in the modern society still has its roots in the Colonial mindset that has not changed,” Weliange noted. “Those who don’t know its rich history and the medicinal value it holds in treating depression, anxiety and other psychological as well as physical ailments will continue to oppose the move for its legalisation.”
According to Weliange, much of the opposition to legalising cannabis comes from certain groups in the medical field and from organisations that promote abstinence – primarily the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre and the Sri Lanka Temperance Association, which both aim to prevent the use of alcohol and drugs.
“Their criticism is based on outdated thinking and information,” Weliange said, adding that cultivating cannabis and export products made from it should be legalised in the country. He believes legalising cannabis will help traditional farmers as well as prevent people from using chemically processed cannabis and other harmful substances.
Cannabis has been decriminalised at varying degrees around the world. Its recreational use is allowed in Canada, Georgia, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay, and in certain parts of the United States and Australia. The medical use of cannabis is allowed in 43 countries, but is still largely prohibited in the Middle East and Asia. In some countries like India, Laos and Cambodia, laws governing the use of cannabis are not strictly applied.
In 2018, the Sri Lankan government announced a proposal to establish a cannabis plantation with the aim of exporting it in drug form to the U.S. for medicinal use. The plan was to have registered Ayurvedic practitioners cultivate a 400-hectare plantation, but it never materialised.
In 2020, Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena proposed that locally cultivated cannabis be used to boost Sri Lanka’s export industry. However, after a series of protests from the religious community, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa turned down the plan.
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