With strict prohibition and a law enforcement culture of fear and intimidation, the legacy of Soviet occupation looms large over Georgian drug policy. But an unprecedented wave of activism is making cannabis decriminalization seem like a real possibility.
In the United States, the cannabis decriminalization movement is riding high on the momentum of eight big electoral wins and the collective buzz of a million stoney victory parties.
And the world is watching. Just beyond the south-eastern shore of the Black Sea, at the crossroads of West Asia and Eastern Europe, a cannabis revolution is brewing in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia.
The current penalties for possession and/or distribution of cannabis in Georgia range from a $200 USD fine to 11 years in prison. Critics of the current system say these penalties, along with an aggressive enforcement approach by the government, endanger people and do far more harm than cannabis itself.
An unprecedented movement for safe access
Zurab Japaridze, leader of the liberal-centrist Georgian opposition party, Girchi, is among those critics. He recently announced to media that he has given the Georgian government an ultimatum: if it does not, at the very least, decriminalize the personal possession and consumption of cannabis by the end of the year, Girchi party members will publicly plant a cannabis plant in their office at the start of the New Year’s Eve countdown.
Japaridze recently spoke with Cannabis Now about his country’s robust social movement towards decriminalization, which is more or less unprecedented in the Caucasus region.
“For us it is not just a fight for cannabis use. We believe in freedom. And for us freedom starts with the complete, 100% ownership of one’s own body,” he said. “We believe that this is a foundation of all other human rights. The government has nothing to do whatsoever with what any citizen inhales or puts in his body in other ways. So, for us it is a fight for freedom.”
In addition to his own party, Japaridze credited two additional social forces with carrying the banner of cannabis decriminalization: the June 2 and White Noise Movements have both been making plenty of noise on their own.
Taking the movement to the streets
In August, supporters of White Noise — which advocates Portugal-style drug decriminalization and marijuana legalization — squared off with riot police in the Georgian town of Samtredia. The confrontation grew from anger over the suicide death of 22-year old Demur Sturua, who blamed police trying to force him into being a criminal informant for his decision in a suicide note.
The police officer involved in the incident has been charged in absentia for his role in the death and is currently on the run, but White Noise and other decriminalization advocates insist Georgia’s harsh drug laws are to blame.
Japairidze says that, as in the US, Georgian law enforcement has proven to be one of the major roadblocks for safe access activists, with the strongest opposition coming from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Japaridze believes the Ministry has a rather sinister incentive to maintain the Soviet-style status quo on drug laws around cannabis.
“MIA just wants to keep this policy in practice because it provides a specific leverage over tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of people who smoke marijuana. MIA needs this leverage to threaten these people whenever it needs to.” he said. “This system is a leftover from Soviet times and unfortunately no government dared to change it, even though all parties before every parliamentary election make a promise to liberalize drug policy.”
He said this fear of the MIA — and of being demonized in a socially conservative society — is the most effective tool being used by the government against activist, but adds that despite the forces conspiring against them, Georgia’s cannabis movement has won major battles in the court of public opinion.
“At least majority of people agree now that citizens should not be sentenced to several years in prison for just smoking the marijuana,” he said.
Inspiration from the West
Japaridze believes he speaks for many cannabis advocates in Georgia when he says he was emboldened by the success of decriminalization in the recent US Election.
He believes good news for American cannabis users is ultimately good news for their aspirational comrades in Georgia, and he’s already spreading that message far and wide.
“I just got back from one of the TV debates on upcoming cannabis legislation. One of the arguments I used against opponents was exactly that – in a civilized world the debate over cannabis legalization is already won,” he said. “What we see now is just a legislative formalization of this fact. And the latest US elections are further proof of that.”
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