Fighting Georgia’s draconian anti-drug law
In 2013, the 27-year old Beka Tsikarishvili was arrested for possession of 65 grams of marijuana. He could have faced between seven and 14 years of prison. It was during his trial that the Georgian Constitutional Tribunal announced in 2015 for the first time that sentencing people to imprisonment for possessing no more than 70 grams of marijuana is against the constitution. In the ruling, it was additionally highlighted that the decision does not mean depenalisation of cannabis and does not refer to situations where the purpose of possession no matter the amount, was to sell the drug.
Since 2006, Georgia has conducted a strict anti-drug policy. At the time, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili began his own campaign “zero tolerance for petty crime”, within the framework of which he made changes in the criminal law whereby for petty theft or possessing for one’s own use even small amounts of light drugs, the defendants would go to prison. Saakashvili was against suspended sentences. As a result of his decision, for possessing marijuana one could face up to 14 years in prison. In the following years, Georgian police guided by the rule of presumption of guilt, often abused its power, forcing the detained to go through a THC detection test from blood or urine.
The issue gained publicity in 2015 when a taxi driver from Kutaisi, Levan Abzianidze, was stopped by the police and then brought to the police station to be tested for the presence of drugs in his urine. The man was unable to provide a sample, so the officers asked him to take a diuretic pill. The 56-year old died shortly afterwards. He had had medical problems a while before. The result of the test was negative.
The Georgian White Noise movement, which demands depenalisation of drugs, says in its report that Georgian police test over 100 people a day for the presence of drugs in their system. Moreover, the report claims that since 2006 the Georgian government has earned 11.3 million US dollars in fines for drug-related offences.
The new anti-drug policy made Saakashvili many enemies and activated Georgian youth and local human rights movements and organisations. Society did not want to remain when young people go to prison for smoking a social joint. How could such an irrational idea be born in Saakashvili’s head?
Misha was aware that Georgia is an important point on the international drug smuggling route from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. Perhaps this is why he decided to approach the possession of even minimal amounts of drugs in such a restrictive way. However, in Georgia the majority of marijuana comes from local production – on the fields one can often find wild cannabis plants.
Moreover, looking up to the West, Saakashvili should realise that using repressive-punitive measures in drug-related cases is not effective, as it does not help in fighting addiction. On the contrary, it can lead addicts towards crime.
Currently, according to the Georgian law, possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, without an intension to sell, is an administrative offence, which is subject to a financial penalty of 500 lari (around 182 euro). At the same time, a person who was caught with a larger amount of marijuana, or a smaller amount but for a second time within a year, is subject to criminal responsibility and can be arrested.
However, the case is becoming increasingly dynamic. Over the past few weeks, the Georgian Constitutional Tribunal issued a number of decisions, such as a ban on prison sentences for people who were caught possessing or consuming up to 70 grams of cannabis, even if it happened more than once in a year.
On February 15th, Constitutional Tribunal judges issued a ruling in a similar case, which provides that those possessing up to 100 grams of fresh, not yet dried cannabis, will not face a prison sentence. Another case, this time in relation to depenalisation of cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use is meant to be resolved by the Tribunal within the next several months.
The supporters of depenalisation of drugs are represented before the Georgian Tribunal by the White Noise movement, which won the aforementioned case of Beka Tsikarishvili. The organisation conducted a campaign titled “Beka is not a criminal” and in December 2016 it organised popular demonstrations, during which people demanded the legalisation of marijuana.
In this context, the work of the New Political Center-Girchi party, which was established by four lawyers, formerly involved in Saakashvili’s United National Movement, deserves attention. The group was involved in one of the many eavesdropping scandals of the last election and announced that it had left its election block, and thereby resigned from the election race for the Georgian parliament. Girchi made the headlines again towards the end of 2016. On December 31st, the police entered the party’s office, where they found a proper cultivation of cannabis. The party planted 77 flowerpots of marijuana within a framework of a campaign for legalisation and depenalisation of various types of drugs.
The plants were confiscated and the party leader, Zurab Dzhaparidze and his collaborators were indicted. Dzhaparidze claims that smoking pot is “not only a human right, but also a cure for Georgia’s financial problems”. He argues that after taxing cannabis in Georgia, economic growth could increase by two or three per cent. Dzhaparidze also refers to medical issues and claims that smoking marijuana contributes to improvements in public health.
Legalisation of marijuana is strongly resisted by the Georgian Orthodox Church and the ruling Georgian Dream party, which received 48.7 per cent of votes in the last election. However, as a result of the large protests and the pressure of public opinion, the government is changing its stance and beginning to approach possession of small amounts of marijuana in a more benign way. Georgia’s prime minister, Grigori Kvirikashvili, recently stated that young people should not be encouraged to try even light drugs, but sending them to prison only for consumption is wrong.
Such concessions for the supporters of drug depenalisation are only the beginning of the fight for more freedom. While it is difficult to change a country with such deep-rooted conservatism into the Netherlands of the South Caucasus, for people currently facing trials for the possession of marijuana, the recent decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal mean a lot. Most probably, the court will consider the recent rulings and treat them more leniently.
Milena Chodoła is a second year student at the Centre of East European Studies, University of Warsaw, specialising in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia. Her research interests include transformation and frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus and the functioning of parastates. She is a stipendist of Tbilisi State University.