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Fighting back against Georgia’s war on drugs

Georgia’s draconian laws against narcotics are in the spotlight, as activists take to the streets and demand an end to the criminalisation of drug users.

A protest held by the White Noise Movement in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, 10 December 2016. Photo courtesy of Guram Muradov and photoessay.ge. All rights reserved.

There are angry crowds in Tbilisi again. On International Human Rights Day (10 December), protesters gathered outside Georgia’s parliament building to call on the government to “decriminalise!”. The event ended in a confrontation with the police, as protesters obstructed the main road. Nobody doubts that protests will continue; Georgia is fighting a war on drugs, and activists of the White Noise Movement are on the front line. 

The decriminalisation of marijuana, among other illicit drugs, has been a real issue in Georgian politics since 2011. The country has a particularly repressive no-tolerance policy towards all drug users, which has endured (with a few changes) since the Soviet period.

While Georgia’s anti-drug activists seek the decriminalisation of all narcotics, marijuana is a particularly good example of the brutality and pointlessness of Tbilisi’s no-tolerance policy. After all, across the world, governments are beginning to legalise it. In Georgia, its users are hit with a prison sentence.

It’s hit the headlines, too. On 8 August, Demur Sturua, a 22-year old man from the western Samtredia region, committed suicide. In his last letter, Sturua accused local police inspector Godzeri Tevzadze of threatening him with arrest if he did not reveal who was growing marijuana in the local area. Sturua had received a suspended sentence for theft and, terrified that he might actually be sentenced for it if he did not cooperate, took his own life. Soon afterwards, activists clashed with police in Samtredia, accusing Georgia’s drug policy of driving Sturua to suicide. A criminal case has been opened, and continues to this day.
 

Last year witnessed the death of another victim. On 17 June 2015, Levan Abzianidze, a taxi driver from Kutaisi, was detained and taken to a police station to undergo drug tests. He was unable to provide a urine sample on demand, but police took no chances. They made him take one diuretic pill, and then another, to speed up the process. Abzianidze’s test was negative. The 56-year old man, who had suffered health problems, died before he reached home. Police deny that they gave him any medication, and this criminal case is also ongoing.

It’s common practice for Georgia’s police to stop young men at random, forcing them to provide urine samples and undergo drug tests. There needn’t be any grounds for suspicion. Abzianidze and Sturua are just two victims’ stories — there are many more. 

Civilisation is in the eye of the beholder

Today, many developed, democratic countries realise that a no-tolerance policy towards drugs doesn’t work. In November 2016, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report entitled “A New Approach to Decriminalisation”. Its authors note that “a punitive approach to drug control fundamentally undermines the relationship between the individual and the state, with so many of its citizens in breach of illogical drug laws.”


Nevertheless, a majority of states still insist on pursuing less realistic objectives laid out in international agreements on drugs. They yearn for a “world free of drugs” and a “world free of drug abuse”. Such goals are not only naive — they’re dangerous.  

Stricter prohibitions have had virtually no impact on drug consumption: from 2006 to 2013, the estimated number of drug users has increased by nearly 20% 

They’re naive because stricter prohibitions have had virtually no impact on drug consumption: from 2006 to 2013, the estimated number of drug users has increased by nearly 20%, to some 246m people worldwide. They’re dangerous because they fuel a level of mass incarceration and use of punishment contrary to international law, driving the spread of infectious diseases and contributing to the violation of human rights of drug users. Prohibitionism has indirectly led to the deaths of nearly 200,000 people worldwide every year from drug use. “National governments should urgently free themselves from the constraints of this anarchic system of prohibition,” the report concludes.

A casualty of Georgia’s punitive drugs policy: 22-year old Demur Sturua from Samtredia, western Georgia. Image still via Maestro TV / Youtube. Some rights reserved.

The acquisition or use of small doses of drugs, including marijuana, is punishable under current Georgian law as an administrative offence. This carries a fine of up to 500 lari (£149). Possession of drugs with intent to sell carries criminal liability, as does possession or use if you’re caught twice in a 12-month period. 
 

Girchi, a new political party founded in 2015, has consistently fought against Georgia’s draconian anti-drug laws. This struggle forms one part of its broader libertarian platform. Party chairman Zurab Japaridze told me that police make around 50,000 people undergo drug tests in Georgia every year. Given that testing one litre of urine costs around 6,000 lari (£1,800), this means that the state is spending 15-18 million lari annually on the process. To put it into perspective, Japaridze tells me, annual funding for the presidential administration stands at around nine million lari (£2.7m). 

It’s widely believed that Georgia’s Interior Ministry is deliberately stalling any moves towards decriminalising drugs

It should be mentioned that 70% of drug tests show a negative result, and the remaining 30% of positive results can often be dubious. But the government continues to spend away,
and Girchi’s party chairman believes that if marijuana is legalised, Georgia’s economy could grow by around three billion lari, and the budget by one billion.
“This money could then be spent on educational campaigns against drug use in schools and improving medical care and rehabilitation for drug addicts,” says Japaridze. 
 

Fierce opposition 

Many Georgian politicians, representatives of NGOs and experts in drug policy are opposed to jail sentences for drug use. In October 2015, Georgia’s constitutional court ruled against imprisonment for the acquisition or possession of over 70 grams of marijuana for personal use.

Nevertheless, the legislation remains unchanged. It’s widely believed that Georgia’s Interior Ministry is deliberately stalling any moves towards decriminalising marijuana and other drugs. This resistance is connected with the agency’s working practices: it’s often much easier to send a criminal to jail for drug use than it is to actually investigate the crime. It’s a tradition stretching back to Soviet times.

In fact, many practices of Georgia’s repressive anti-drugs policy have practically gone unchanged since then. The chaos and corruption of Eduard Shevardnadze’s rule (1995-2003), the no-tolerance policy of Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013), nor the pale imitation of humanitarianism under today’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition have improved the condition of drug users. Perhaps the only recent positive development is that hospitals are no longer required to contact the police if they receive a patient suffering from an overdose. 

Indeed, by arresting a drug user, Georgian law enforcement may find a “bigger fish”. They force the user to become an informant, and they then identify other users and dealers. As Demur Sturua’s case shows, this practice costs lives — some people simply refuse to play along. The interior ministry stresses that Georgia is not ready for radical reforms. But the law enforcement agencies give the impression that they’re the ones unwilling to change. David Subeliani, one of the leaders of the White Noise movement, which seeks decriminalisation of all drugs, tells me that the Interior Ministry doesn’t want to lose its influence over drug policy. 


“Embrace decriminalisation!” reads this poster outside Georgia’s parliament building. Image courtesy of the White Noise Movement / Facebook.

White Noise, which organised the 10 December protests in Tbilisi, opposes what it describes as Georgia’s inhumane policy towards drug users. Founded in 2015, it participates in the Georgian national platform for drug politics, along with 33 NGOs which also oppose the state’s punitive approach. 

“As a result of criminalising all drug use — including users and cultivators of marijuana — the number of recorded and solved crimes rise,” explains Subeliani. “Thanks to fines and procedural expenses, there’s more money in their budget.” In a sense, Subeliani believes that rank and file police officers are themselves victims of the state’s harsh anti-narcotics policy.

Facing stigma

In 2016 alone, 1,700 people have been arrested in Georgia for drug use. Doctor Zurab Sikharulidze of the Uranti addiction treatment centre in Tbilisi believes that a punitive narcotics policy permits further methods of social and political control. “Parliament should change the law for the common good, but deputies are afraid of taking on any responsibility for doing so,” Dr Sikharulidz tells me. 
 

The Georgian government isn’t above using drug addicts in the pre-electoral period to guarantee itself a few extra votes. This usually concerns drug users on probation, the vast majority of whom are unemployed. They’re also deprived of several important rights, such as driving a car or being able to leave the country. Highly stigmatised in Georgian society, drug users are even refused entry to shelters for the homeless. Young people who are imprisoned for drug use rarely leave jail with a good chance at earning a living — they’re not good boys or good girls any longer.
 

Opponents of decriminalisation have their own mantra — they claim about future generations and the quality of the national gene pool. But their concern has resulted in the rising use of over-the-counter narcotics from pharmacies, or dangerous synthetic drugs.
“Our society is trapped in a vicious circle,” sighs Dr Sikharulidze. “A repressive drugs policy leads to further use in pharmaceutical or synthetic drugs, which leads to further imprisonments, which in turn justify a repressive drugs policy”. “We have to face up to the fact that we have drug users, much like we have alcoholics or compulsive gamblers. These people have a problem, and they need our help, not punishment,” he continues. 

Repression and fear can always achieve immediate results. But in the long term, such policies are utterly pointless 

Girchi chairman Zurab Japaridze adds that, alongside increased abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, other negative effects of a punitive drugs policy are sexually transmitted diseases and Hepatitis C. Many drug addicts are afraid to buy fresh needles, as they may be detained outside pharmacies by the police. This encourages the repeated use and share of the same needles. The current government is very proud of its programme to eliminate Hepatitis C. Yet this too is undermined by its punitive drugs policy — for 70% of people being treated are intravenous drug users. 

David Subeliani raises one very sad statistic: over the past two years, the number of drug users in Georgia who suffer from serious addiction has risen from 45,000 to 50,000. It’s clear that the authorities do not want to look facts in the face.

Japaridze and his colleagues from Girchi announce their ultimatum to the Georgian authorities on marijuana legalisation. Image still via Girchi / YouTube. Some rights reserved.
In those countries which have decriminalised drug use, not only have the number of addicts declined — so has the number of HIV-positive people. 
Portugal decriminalised the personal possession of all drugs in 2001, although it remains an administrative offence to own more than a ten-day supply of any narcotic. Following this policy’s introduction, the number of annual drug-related crimes fell from around 14,000 in 2000 to around 5,000-5,500 in years since. 

After decriminalisation of cannabis possession in Jamaica in 2015, the number of arrests for crimes linked to the drug fell by approximately 1,000 every month. According to some forecasts, around 15,000 fewer criminal cases will burden the police and justice system.
Research also shows that decriminalisation of cannabis in Australia has shown a significant effect on decreasing recidivism among drug users.
In December 2013, the US state of Colorado legalised the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana for non-medicinal purposes. According to the state authorities, the number of violent crimes in 2014 decreased by two percent, and the number of burglaries by 9.5%, compared to 2013. 

Japaridze and colleagues announce that if no steps are taken towards its legalisation, they’ll plant marijuana in their party offices 

Research published in Scientific Reports journal shows that the risk of death from regular use of marijuana is 114 times lower than comparable levels of alcohol use, and around 20 times lower than smoking tobacco. A punitive drugs policy can also lead to corruption, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. A punitive drugs policy aids the rise of drug-related crime. And a punitive drug policy has shown itself to be just as ineffective and unjustifiable as the death sentence. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report concludes, millions of people across the world use drugs without posing a threat to anybody else. The evidence against punitive drug policies is overwhelming, and there must be no penalties for low-level drug possession and consumption.

After Girchi’s unsuccessful attempt to push a bill through parliament that would abolish imprisonment for drug use and reduce penalties for purchasing, possessing or processing marijuana in small quantities, the party took matters into their own hands. Zurab Japaridze and his colleagues have announced that if no steps are taken towards its legalisation, they will plant marijuana in their party offices on 31 December.

“We are aware that this violates the law, but this is our fight for political liberties,” Japaradize told Tabula. “The authorities haven’t given us another choice.”
 For this act, they could face a prison sentence of six to 12 years. Such are today’s realities. 

Repression and fear can always achieve immediate results. But in the long term, such policies are utterly pointless. I very much hope that Georgia’s leaders find the will to overcome their retrograde approach to drug use — making the lives of thousands of people safer and more dignified.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards.

Editor’s note: this article has been revised after consultation with the White Noise Movement 

About the author

Tamar Papalashvili is a Georgian journalist and correspondent for Davidzon Radio, a US-based Russian-language broadcaster, and RTN-WMNB. She lives in Tbilisi.


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