Domestic legislation behind the
The Nation spoke to Sri Lanka Standards
Institution (SLSI) Chairman Dr. A.R.L. Wijesekera, former Government
Analyst and Consultant (in narcotics), National Dangerous Drug Control
Board (NDDCB), on the mandate of the National Narcotics Laboratory (NNL),
affiliated to the NDDCB and international legislation pertaining to
By Randima Attygalle
Q: What functional tasks come within the purview of the National
A: The National Narcotics Laboratory (NNL) is ‘accredited’ by UNODC
and it is the only laboratory in the country dedicated to the analysis
of narcotics. Although the Government Analyst’s Department is also
empowered to analyse narcotics, it is among one of the many tasks
performed by it, whereas the NNL, which is an integral part of the NDDCB,
is solely committed to the examination and analysis of narcotics.
Our functions go beyond examination of narcotics. We facilitate all law
enforcement authorities, including the Sri Lanka Police, Excise
officers, Customs officers and Forest Department Officers in achieving
the ultimate end of combating and minimising the usage of narcotics.
With this objective in mind, the laboratory is entrusted with the tasks
of conducting demonstrations and other awareness programmes for the
For example, we assist Customs to detect various kinds of narcotics by
their appearance. A drug like LSD for instance, comes as ‘blotter-acid’
paper. This is similar to wallpaper and its pictorial representation is
so varied and unusual that it can mislead the ignorant. This paper is
found in a range of designs from Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to all
kinds of religious symbols, flowers, fruits, etc. The culprit can escape
under the pretext that he is importing children’s wallpaper. This paper
is segmented into stamp-like divisions, each of which contains 20-50
microgrammes of LSD.
NNL is the only laboratory in the country which carries out testing of
urine for determination of drug metabolites to meet certain migration
requirements and certain employment criteria such as those working on
ships. In addition, we also carry out extensive research. We have
published a considerable number of papers on ‘Degradation of Heroin’ for
instance, which have been recognised in many international scientific
Q: Is the NNL on par with the Government Analyst’s Department?
A: Yes, as far as narcotics analysis is concerned. We are soundly
equipped to carry out all narcotics-related operations carried out by
the Government Analyst’s Department. Unfortunately, our legislation
empowers only the Government Analyst to examine and report on seized
samples of narcotics. Thus, it is only the report of the Government
Analyst which is legally valid for prosecution. The NNL is not still
empowered to issue reports for a prosecution.
Besides narcotics, NNL also assists Customs in examining pharmaceutical
preparations and other samples seized by Excise officers. However, these
findings will not be valid for prosecution. Therefore, we are
anticipating legislation which will empower the NNL to issue reports for
prosecution in the near future.
With around 30,000 arrests per year, the Government Analyst’s Department
is over-burdened and NNL is looking forward to contributing more
tangibly to assist the Department with reports on seizures, thereby
expediting cases in this regard. NDDCB Chairman D.P. Mendis, PC, has
given much assistance in upgrading the laboratory.
Q: Can you shed light upon international legislation pertaining to
narcotics acceded by Sri Lanka?
A: There are three main international conventions to which Sri Lanka
is a signatory. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 spells
out all the narcotics and substances defined as narcotics. Increased
concern over the harmful effects of mood-altering synthetic substances
led to the adoption of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in
1971, which recognised a list of psychotropic substances such as LSD,
amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, etc.
Despite these two conventions, the world community realised that there
was still a rising trend in drug abuse. Thus in 1988, a new convention,
titled The United Nation’s Convention Against Illicit Traffic in
Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic, was introduced to restrict the free
movement of narcotics. This provides provisions for the monitoring of
certain precursors, all of which have other legal uses.
For example, acetic anhydride, which is used in the manufacture of
heroin, is used in the manufacture of paracetemol, in the paint
industry, in the leather industry, etc. Since Sri Lanka is also a
signatory to the above legal instruments, it is important to get our
domestic legislation in place to accommodate the provisions of these
Q: What areas of local legislation related to combating of narcotics
should be strengthened, in your opinion?
A: According to our present legislation, only the possession of
heroin, morphine, opium, cannabis and cocaine receive deterrent
punishment. All other narcotics are excluded, which I believe is a
lacuna. Most of these excluded drugs were not known at the time the
present legislation was enacted. A clear case is the much abused
recreational drug, Ecstasy, which is a methamphetamine (MDMA).
Therefore, it is time that domestic legislation is enacted to fall in
line with contemporary world legislation without delay.
The war against drugs
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The main drug-related problem in Sri Lanka is the number of wrong
perceptions associated with drug use and rehabilitation, according to
Dr. Manoj Fernando of Sri Lanka Sumithrayo.
“There are many notions prevalent in the Sri Lankan community, which
have many negative effects,” he asserted. In his opinion, many beliefs
held by society encourage addiction and prevent rehabilitation by
disempowering the user.
“For instance, there is a concept that if you use heroin once, you are
addicted, and if you don’t use the drug the next day, there will be
withdrawal symptoms in the form of acute physical pain,” he said.
“To have withdrawal symptoms one has to be to reach the ‘chemical
addiction’ phase and 90% of Sri Lankan drug users have not reached that
phase. That takes at least five years of continuous drug use. But many
people who have used drugs once or twice assume that they are dependent
on the drug,” he explained.
The first step
Despite the actions of the government, perpetual pep talk of religious
leaders and social stigma associated with drug abuse, the number of drug
users has increased steadily over the last two decades in Sri Lanka.
“There are many key factors that may influence a person to experiment
with drugs. One might be the association between drugs and adventure.
For some odd reason, people who have had no experience of drugs assume
that drugs enable someone to do things that they cannot do when they are
not on drugs and in a normal state.”
‘Under the influence’ is a term that is familiar to us and the tendency
to excuse the intoxicated is another reason that encourages abuse. “Many
people think that people are not responsible for what they do when they
consume narcotics. While this is completely untrue, it provides the user
with a good excuse, Dr. Fernando pointed out.
“Another reason is the unforeseen manipulation of drug lords. They pay
huge sums of money to artists and make them promote the drug culture and
associate drugs with pleasure. Sokari by Chinthy that links sexual
pleasure with cannabis and Pata Pata Mal mal by Iraj and Killer B are
two examples that come to my mind,” he added.
Many claim that many take on drugs because of peer pressure and a weak
person could be easily influenced by friends who entice them to use
drugs. “They may feel that in order to fit in, they should imitate their
friends. But one cannot point fingers at peer pressure and say people
get addicted to drugs because they hang out with people who use drugs.
In the end, it’s up to the individual to choose what’s good for them,”
Dr. Fernando said.
Kicking the habit
Rehabilitation: the image that comes to mind is an institution somewhat
similar to a prison where drug addicts are kept ‘in captivity’ by force.
“People think that keeping an individual in a drug free environment for
a period of time would automatically lead to their recovery. But
unfortunately this is not the case,” commented Dr. Fernando.
“There are thousands of people in open air prison camps. They remain
clean inside these facilities but when they are released, they quickly
return to repeating their mistakes. In my opinion, keeping addicts away
from drugs by force is equivalent to trying stop a relationship by
force; we only end up increasing desire. The only way to ‘rehabilitate’
is by changing the mindset of the addicts.”
A popular view is that a drug addict must go to a rehabilitation centre
in order to overcome his craving. But some raise questions as to whether
doing so makes it more difficult for the addict to overcome his habits
by taking away his self confidence.
“There are many people who stop using drugs on their own. They take a
decision and they stop without ever visiting rehabilitation centres,”
Dr. Fernando said. “But many choose to ignore that and focus on the
desperation and misery and brainwash people into believing that visiting
a rehabilitation centre is a must.”
“According to the modern medical thought, rehabilitation is achieved
through empowering a person. He or she should be given the conviction
that they are in control. They should feel that they can stop when they
want to,” he said. “The most important thing is to change the illusions
of the mind.
Especially the illusion that once you use drugs, it’s impossible to
stop. This will also minimise the chances of relapsing.”
Path to normalcy
We need to look at the society as a whole rather than focus on the
individual addicts, asserted Dr. Fernando. “If we can change the mindset
of the people and make them lose their illusions and misconceptions
about drugs and drug addicts, we can minimise the number of people
He said different organisations use many methods. Some use a method
similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, while others use religion and some
centres use drug substitution. However, he emphasised that giving
psychological support and changing behaviour is the best method.
There is a growing trend of looking towards religion to find solutions
to the drug menace but Dr. Fernando is skeptical of this approach.
“True drug rehabilitation occurs when a person takes a conscious
decision to stop after a proper understanding. Many people who have
stopped following this method are unhappy. I’ve met many who say,
‘Alcohol and drugs are good. They make me happy. But I can’t break the
promise I made to God/Buddha.’ As you can see, this approach depends on
the individual’s ability to adhere to his vows. This method also makes
the individual feel powerless because it’s not he who’s making the
“The problem with Sri Lanka is that we are slow to learn and implement
new methods. Drug rehabilitation has evolved but we still use methods
that are a decade old. There’s a lot that the government should do. They
should at least implement these methods in government-controlled
facilities,” Dr. Fernando added.
Confessions of a reformed drug
By Rathindra Kuruwita
We have all heard about how people have ruined their lives because of
drugs and read thousands of confessions, interviews and apologies by
former drug addicts.
Why do some people do drugs? Some want to experiment and try something
new. Some feel depressed or bored. Some people like high-risk
situations. Some think drugs would help solve their problems.
I met Keshan*, a former drug addict, and asked him why he started using
drugs, about his life with drugs and what made him kick the habit. He
sported messy, long hair but he effortlessly exuded confidence, poise,
and a hint of quiet elegance. As far as first impressions go, one would
quickly assume that his life was easy and refined.
“I first started experimenting with drugs in my late teens. A friend of
mine was doing speed and heroin and seemed to be in control. He spoke of
pushing himself to the extreme and pulling away just before destruction
and he seemed to be doing just that,” Keshan said.
“I had just broken up with my girlfriend and I went to meet him, to
talk, not to do drugs. There he was surrounded by books and CDs, looking
cool, like he did not have a care in the world. Suddenly I thought of
giving drugs a try and when I asked him, he just ignored me and started
reading. When I said I would give him cash, without a word he gave me
the drugs. This should have been an indication of what would happen to
me but I thought I was in control.”
That was just the beginning – before he became an addict. So how many
hits did it take before Keshan’s free will was replaced by need? “When I
left his place, I thought that would be it. But I found myself at his
place again two days later,” he said.
“Soon I started going out on my own to procure drugs. As my tolerance
grew, I needed more money to fund my habit and I started stealing from
home, petty theft followed. My friend was always there offering me tips
on how to support the habit,” he added, with a wry smile.
I had to ask whether the tendency to blame someone else was common among
addicts. Replied Keshan, “I’m not blaming him but the fact that he had
drugs with him at that particular time did make a difference in my
“The life I was living became more difficult day by day. I would just
lie in bed staring at the ceiling when I was not out trying to score.
There were times when I thought ‘I’m done.’ However, withdrawal is a
more powerful motivator than blackmail or violence could ever be. The
drug takes you back every day. Hold your arms out, close your eyes.
You’ll walk unconsciously in the right direction. For that’s what you
“In the end the death of a close friend of mine opened my eyes. His
death and the monotony of the life I was leading made me say ‘enough,’”
Keshan said. “But the real battle is when you clean up. It’s so easy to
relapse. Because you feel so low, you want to top yourself up. Everyday
becomes a constant battle.”
Keshan explained that people like him find different alternatives to
replace drugs – some look towards religion and some seek solace in music
or travelling, while others depend on alcohol or “going through women
like they used to go through drugs,” he pointed out.
The thing about drug abuse is that each user has a unique set of reasons
to start using drugs. It maybe due to the youthful will to experiment,
because all their heroes did drugs, or because the person wanted to
escape the mind-numbing boredom of modern life. As Keshan said, “There
are moments when I still think that drugs are preferable to a tedious
evening drinking beer with my white collar acquaintances.”
(*Name changed to protect identity)
Sri Lanka: geographically vulnerable
Special emphasis needed on rehabilitation
Deputy Solicitor General Dappula De Livera shed
light upon the legal provisions related to narcotics in the country.
Following are excerpts of an interview with The Nation:
By Randima Attygalle
Q: What are the main legislative enactments which govern the illicit
trafficking of narcotics in Sri Lanka?
A: Act No. 13 of 1984 is considered to be the turning point of local
legislation related to narcotics. This is an amendment to the Poison,
Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. Although this Ordinance was not
repealed, it has been amended and schedules have been revised to include
The amendment of 1984 revised Section 54 of the Ordinance and the new
Section 54 (a) refers to four situations – manufacture of dangerous
drugs, trafficking of any drug referred to in Part 3, import and export
and possession of dangerous drugs.
This amendment is significant chiefly for two reasons; while it has
enhanced the punishment entailed in the above situations, the term
‘trafficking’ is given a broader definition. It is defined as to ‘sell,
give, procure, store, administer, transport, send, deliver or distribute
or to offer to do anything mentioned above.’
In 1986, an amendment related to opium was put forward. This does not
relate to any other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, cannabis or sativa L,
which are the most commonly used drugs in this country. If we take the
number of cases prosecuted each year, almost 99% cases pertain to these
Since all these legal enactments have not looked at certain aspects,
particularly in terms of rehabilitation, another amendment is soon to
see light, focussing on this issue, which I believe will fill the
existing lacuna. Provisions relating to transit and transshipment are
also to be included in this amendment.
Q: What can you tell about the disposal of drug-related cases? Is
there a heavy backlog?
A: I have been in charge of narcotic-related cases reported
throughout the island, at the Attorney General’s Department for the last
five years and I must say that the disposal of cases is very
satisfactory by the Department as well as the courts. We hardly have any
I think the setting up of a special court dedicated exclusively to drug
cases in 2006 contributed to the expeditious disposal of cases. All
drugs cases within the Colombo District are now directed to the High
Court set up in Welikada within the prison premises. Similarly in
Negombo, a special High Court is entrusted with hearing of narcotic
Negombo is a very vulnerable area pertaining to the importation of
drugs, where we find many Pakistani and Indian nationals who are
offenders, apart from locals. These two High Courts have been
instrumental in expediting the hearing of narcotic-related cases.
Q: How effective are the penalties quoted for narcotic offences?
A: Possession of over two grammes of heroin is an offence punishable
with death. However, this is commuted to life imprisonment. From a
prosecutor’s point of view, I think having more than 90% of convictions
is satisfactory. Last year we received over 600 serious cases of heroin
and cocaine together and we have indicted over 550.
It is very rarely that you find a case ending up as an acquittal. Also,
we find many pleading guilty in narcotic-related offences. Over 20
foreign nationals have pleaded guilty to serious charges in the Negombo
and Colombo High Courts within the last three months and received life
Q: What are the most vulnerable areas in the island as far as
importing and trafficking is concerned?
A: As a nation, we are in a very vulnerable position.
Geographically, Sri Lanka can be easily accessed by drug-producing
countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Locally speaking, the drug
problem is most acute in cities, particularly Colombo and the suburbs,
and the coastal belt of the island including Negombo, Chilaw, Mannar,
Marawila, and in the southern coast – Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa, Beruwala,
Kalutara and Moratuwa.
Q: What are the social issues related to narcotics which need to be
A: Rehabilitation is of paramount importance. If we look at the
detection statistics, we can see the numbers accelerating. The
destruction caused to society by these drugs is of a high magnitude,
especially heroin. Its destructive effect is very high and the addiction
rate is much higher than that of other drugs such as cannabis.
Even if we look at the prison population, drug offenders constitute the
highest percentage. The prison population is fortified by these
offenders. Rehabilitation needs special emphasis in order to enable the
addicts to be introduced to the mainstream of society once again. I also
believe that law enforcement authorities should not only target local
traffickers but international ‘big time’ traffickers as well who are
responsible for bringing heroin into this country.
Drug replacement therapy
Drug replacement therapy is a commonly
used method in the Western world to rehabilitate Heroin addicts.
“Methadone is an effective maintenance therapy intervention for the
treatment of heroin dependence as it retains patients in treatment and
decreases heroin use better than treatments that do not utilize Opioid
replacement therapy” said Dr. Manoj Fernando.
The idea is to use Methadone which has similar qualities but is less
addictive. “Normally in the States the clinics start with round 30 mg
and then reduce the dose” Dr. Fernando added
“There are two or three centres in Sri Lanka who use this method” he
said but he added that Methadone treatment alone is not enough.
“Although it’s less addictive than Heroin we must not forget that
Methadone is a drug. So the addict has to kick that habit as well”
According to Dr. Fernando in order to achieve the expected results drug
replacement therapy should be combined with counseling. “In order to
achieve the best results some type of psychological counseling should be
provided for their addiction. In the Western world the addicts are
required to attend drug addiction programmes. But in Sri Lanka it’s a
very expensive therapy because of the scarcity of the drug”