Become an OC Media Member

Support independent journalism in the Caucasus: Join today

Become a member

Cannabis production bill on hold in Georgia after Church protests

17 September 2018
(Shota Kincha/OC Media)

Plans to legalise the production of cannabis for export have been put on hold in Georgia after protests from the Georgian Orthodox Church. The head of the Church, Patriarch Ilia II, spoke out against producing cannabis in Georgia, warning it would spread drug addiction in the country.

In a sermon at Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral on Sunday, the Patriarch said that ‘the production [of cannabis] should not become a part of the private sector. If it is part of the private sector, we will not be able to control it’ he warned ‘because drug addicts will start coming from foreign countries and enjoy this freedom.’

‘This will spread drug addiction in Georgia. Therefore, I want to ask the government to approach this matter very responsibly […] We cannot consider economic income only. What is the use of the economy if we lose our children?’, the Patriarch said.

The government announced plans to legalise and license cannabis production for ‘pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes’ to be exported on 11 September. The Interior Ministry said they were working on ‘different ways to regulate cannabis’ after a Constitutional Court ruling legalised cannabis consumption in Georgia. According to the proposals, the sale of cannabis in Georgia would still remain illegal.

‘Extensive consultations’

While he warned of the dangers of drug addiction, the Patriarch also said it was curable and encouraged people to support substance dependants and their loved ones on the way to recovery. The Patriarch assured the public on two separate occasions that ‘the government loves Georgia as much as us’ and called for unity between the government and the Church in battling drug addiction in Georgia.

Patriarch Ilia II (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

In an interview on Saturday with TV Imedi, Deputy Interior Minister Natia Mezvrishvilii dismissed claims the new regulations would encourage ‘narco-tourism’, and said the economic gains from cannabis exports would make financing drug rehabilitation programmes possible. On the same day, Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani stated that if the law was passed, exports worth ₾1 billion ($380 million) would be possible within 2–3 years.

Minutes before the sermon, the ruling Georgian Dream Party announced they would ‘split’ the draft law package. Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze told the press that they were ‘in a hurry’ to regulate cannabis consumption, citing the legal vacuum caused by the Constitutional Court ruling legalising consumption.

Kobakhidze and others from the party reiterated after the Patriarch’s sermon that they would not pass the law on cannabis production without ‘extensive consultations [with] society’, including the Church. Kobakhidze also assured the press that the Church ‘would not have to compromise on anything’ after the talks, as they had no plans to legalise the ‘production and sale’ of cannabis and that the public had been misinformed about their initiative.

‘That attitude has changed’

The Patriarch’s sermon was announced by a group of Orthodox Christian priests protesting the planned law on Saturday evening on Tbilisi’s central Freedom Square. The group said Ilia II was calling on ‘everyone’ to gather for Sunday prayers at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Priests protesting on Freedom Square on Sunday (Shota Kincha/OC Media)

After the Patriarch’s service on Sunday, a group of priests and worships, as well as members of the Union of Orthodox Parents, marched again to protest on Freedom Square.

After ruling party officials announced they were to split the bill, one of the leaders of Sunday’s protest, Archpriest Andria Jaghmaidze, thanked ‘all those who heard the people’s voice’ and informed the crowd that the part of the initiative concerning production of cannabis would be ‘withdrawn’ until it was discussed publicly.

Speaking to the media, Jaghmaidze complained that after a ‘secretly initiated’ draft law became public, statements from the authorities suggested ‘it was like a done deal’, but that now ‘that attitude has changed’.

The new law initiative

On 12 September, the day after the government revealed their plans for cannabis production and export, the Interior Ministry put out a press release with details of the legal package which would ‘strictly regulate cannabis consumption’, ‘safeguard society, especially minors, from the harm of using cannabis’, and share positive experiences of ‘foreign developed countries’ that cultivate and produce medical cannabis for export.

According to the ministry’s statement, the draft law would prohibit consumption in public, in public transport, and on school premises. Smoking under 21 would be illegal, and sharing cannabis with anyone under 21 or driving a vehicle under the influence would be criminally punishable.

The ministry also planned to tighten regulations against ‘popularising and advertising’ of smoking cannabis, and for using cannabis while at work — making it an offence both for public servants and private sector employees. Under the new law, criminal charges for possessing and selling cannabis would remain intact.

On 13 September, the government submitted the draft law, which among other restrictions, would make consuming cannabis lawful only at home. According to the draft law, violators could be fined ₾500–₾1,000 ($190–$380) for a first offence and ₾1,000–₾1,500 ($380–$580) thereafter.

In terms of production for export, the ministry said it would be ‘strictly regulated’, with an ‘independent agency’ issuing licences and overseeing production. The authorities said they planned to introduce ‘various sorts of licenses […] in order to prevent a monopoly of one company over the whole production chain’.