Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Garden Spirits Speak Out

by Manik Sandrasagra

For nearly five centuries, Sri Lankans have been listening to the directions of European-minded reformers confident that they can introduce changes for the betterment of our resplendent isle. All too often, in their rush to elevate Sri Lanka to the level of their own expectations, foreign experts fail to understand those aspects of our culture which are the farthest removed from their own cultural world view. The net result, as every Sri Lankan adult knows, has been more conflict and social misery.

After learning to swallow foreign concepts of national development and human rights, the latest of Sri Lanka's shortcomings, we are told, is the reluctance of our scientists to concern themselves with controversial issues pertaining to the public policy. Specifically, says University of California, Berkeley, law student Scott Sherman in an opinion piece entitled "Who Will Speak Out?" on the February 6 science page of The Island, "Scientists are afraid to get involved in a legal conflict. They refuse to speak out or use their knowledge to help the suffering villagers."


To his own credit, Scott spent an internship with the Sri Lankan NGO the Environmental Foundation Limited before sounding his call for honesty, integrity and clarity of thought on the part of our nation's scientific community. A law student himself, he contrasts public interest lawyers who "sacrifice life, wealth and comfort to take risks for the public good" with scientists who "sell their big business development interests" and in the process "become pawns of the wealthy elite, who then checkmate the interests of millions of impoverished citizens."

In The Island of January 25 I issued a similar call for debate on the relative merits of ecologically Sustainable Development versus the Newly Industrialized Country model of development. At present only the ecologist Dr. Ranil Senanayake has responded with the accompanying editorial of February 3, 1992. I therefore hasten to respond to this further call since Scott, The Island, and I along with many others share a common concern for the preservation of Sri Lanka's traditional quality of life.

For at least twenty years I and others have been looking for a public-spirited lawyer with Scott's vision, grit, credentials and convictions. Now that I have found one, I would like to air some issues that concern the public environment here in Sri Lanka. At long last we may use this opportunity to conduct an impartial open investigation with the public's Interest as our principal objective.

The subject is cannabis, ganja, marijuana or ‘weed' as some call it.

In 1979, one of the findings of a US Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into cannabis was that "over two hundred million people worldwide use the herb cannabis for medical, spiritual, recreational and industrial purposes." It is therefore evident that a vast international marketing network exists to supply this mainly illegal, demand, and an equally huge paramilitary police force exists for the purpose of restricting the supply to cannabis consumers.

Kitul palm
Kitul palm. In India and other Asian countries, the palm is tapped for its syrup which is often fermented into an alcoholic beverage called toddy.

Illegal overnight

Many years ago when alien laws were introduced into our midst by our colonial masters and their willing servants, both the cannabis plant and the kitul palm were suddenly declared illegal. Neither species was consulted, nor were the villagers who cultivated them.

Our own home garden-grown ‘highs' were arbitrarily declared illegal overnight. In its place, these foreign-minded administrators installed a licensing system to control the sale of distilled spirits, especially coconut arrack that could be marketed and heavily taxed as a state monopoly. The system brought with it land grabbers, lawyers, and policemen to enforce the state's lucrative monopoly. And it is still working to this day.

Our so-called ‘independence' was a sham that changed nothing more than the faces of the people riding in the saddle. Renda karayas (arrack renters) still remain as big supporters of such official hypocrisy.

Since then, the bureaucracy, judiciary, and police force that were created to enforce the alien laws and to guard their institutions have grown a process called ‘development' to tame the unruly natives and to make them kowtow to legal and moral codes cooked up in an alien environment, i.e. the Big City.

As a result of this decidedly undemocratic process, the village lost both its independence and its ‘highs'. Our own traditions began to be edited for approval or disapproval by foreign-oriented ‘experts' who only recently have set out to research things that our ancestors found long ago.

The traditional use of Indian hemp or cannibis

To add insult to injury, having subverted our traditions and introduced all sorts of exotic ideologies into our midst including Olcott Buddhism (as recently documented by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere), these same ‘do-gooders' are now telling us that we should preserve our culture and appreciate it better. Even world-class shapers of opinion like Time magazine and National Geographic have joined the chorus by declaring their emphatic support for indigenous peoples, their knowledge and, most of all, their unique cultural patterns. But few policy-makers are even aware of it.

This same dominant mentality keeps retaining its hegemony by creating the rules that govern people's lives. In the process, the same homegrown ganja that our ancestors called Triloka Vijaya or ‘Triumph in all Three Worlds' is now declared to be a ‘dangerous drug' along with heroin, cocaine and other creations of their own laboratories. Discrimination between actual and imaginary danger is officially taboo except for alcohol, tobacco, and other substances licensed as the government's own monopoly.


Meanwhile, the mass media go on giving prominence to police involvement in hysterical campaigns to restrict the supply of this hardy weed. Street prices are constantly monitored and profit potentials publicized so that suddenly Presto! we find ‘big business' jumping in with higher prices, higher profits, tougher laws and more severe penalties.

Naturally, the authorities want to see the supply tightly restricted, just as with alcohol and tobacco. Control permits re-cycling and teaches citizens to fear their own government. A simple garden plant is industrialized.

Let us for a moment look at the economics of cannabis culture. In those, countries that are pressuring the Third World to eradicate its cannabis culture, well-grown genetically engineered cannabis markets for something like five thousand dollars or so per pound. A single well-tended plant yielding about one pound is therefore worth Rs. 200,000.

The harsh reality is that in order to reap these great profits in a society where ‘Money is God', the cannabis cultivators has to deep into the jungle and cut it down to grow his crop. Because of the prevailing climate of fear and paranoia, he grows inferior plants such that his harvest brings him less than what he could earn had he grown just five high-quality paints tended in his home garden. But instead, the law turns him into a criminal.

The final humiliation is that synthetic substitutes also exist that are legally prescribed for social stress. For instance, Nabilone is one such drug that synthetically reproduces the cannabis ‘high'. The rapidly growing list of such synthetic highs makes cannabis suppression a bad joke.

So you see, Scott, we live in a topsy-turvy, world where markets dictate to governments. It is a world in which garden plants need to be eradicated in order to control the market for imported pharmaceutical drugs which are needed to control stress arising from competitive lifestyles similarly imported from abroad.

How then, may I ask, are Sri Lankan scientists to blame for all this? Can Scott Sherman or anyone else name one public Interest lawyer in Sri Lanka who has ventured to take up this cause? Will he or any of his colleagues take up an issue that involves the fundamental right of indigenous people to follow in the footsteps of their ancestral culture in preserving non-Western lifestyles and patterns of understanding?

What I dare to suggest to Scott and others is that they stop seeking and finding scapegoats outside of their own profession. Finally, like our scientists and researchers, lawyers also are playing in this game of ‘dancing for dollars'. Every craft has a definite place in the system that spawns it. Lawyers should use their talents to abolish antiquated colonial laws and refrain from participating in the piecemeal destruction of our once-proud village culture. Otherwise, they become like bureaucrats who discuss kitul palm cultivation on television while the Wahanpura community with its centuries of inherited knowledge is not even consulted.

In conclusion, let me relate an anecdote from the career of a great Sri Lankan patriot, former Public Trustee and principal of the Law College, Mr. Punchi Banda Rambukwelle.

When he was a district judge, the police brought before him persons accused of breaking the kitul palm laws. As judge, he used his judicial discretion and fined them the minimum he was permitted under the ordinance. In all instances this was less than the cost of prosecution.

The police offices got the message. It was no longer worth prosecuting kitul offenders. Indigenous ingenuity won out over vested interests.

Perhaps now public-spirited professionals like Scott can now cease to be the pawns of foreign interests and "speak out" openly in pursuit of the truth and the public welfare. Here then is their chance — let us see who is prepared to take up this challenge.

Courtesy: The Island (Colombo) of Thursday 27th February, 1992

"Indian Hemp"