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Georgia may export cannabis

11 September 2018
Cannabis seedlings at the office of Girchi Party (Girchi)

Georgia may legalise the production of cannabis for export if a new law proposed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs goes ahead. The Interior Ministry announced that the government was working on ‘different ways to regulate cannabis’ on Tuesday.

According to the Ministry, the law would mean restrictions on ‘producing cannabis for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes for export’ would be lifted. Selling cannabis in Georgia would still remain illegal.

According to Georgian news agency InterPressNews, the potential draft law was discussed within the ruling Georgian Dream Party on Monday, causing a heated debate. Party leader and former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili was reportedly among the initiative’s supporters.

The Ministry first said announced they were working on a draft law on cannabis usage on 5 September, after activist Giga Makarashvili was briefly detained for smoking cannabis live on TV. Their initial statement mentioned only suggestions to place restrictions on cannabis consumption, leaving advocates of drug legalisation frustrated.

The latest announcement caught many by surprise. Gia Gachecheiladze, an MP from Georgian Dream, said that the initiative concerned exports only, and would give licences to certain entities to produce cannabis.

The announced plan came under fire from the opposition. ‘They want to produce it while punishing others for it? This is absurd’, stated Giga Bokeria, a leading MP from the European Georgia Party, who urged the government to fully legalise cannabis ‘for everyone’. Bokeria argued that regulating cannabis made sense, and said the government should not try to have a monopoly on selling it.

The Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who had planned an unrelated conference for 12 September, said the news would be at the top of the event’s agenda.

The Church, which preemptively condemned the Constitutional Court’s July ruling legalising cannabis consumption, has pushed back at efforts to portray drug use as in any way acceptable or a matter of personal freedom, as the court suggested in its ruling.

While the Church has in the past called for harsh sentences for drug dealers, they have said they oppose ‘sending addicts to prisons’, and advocate instead for providing treatment to those in need.

Life in prison

Despite recent liberalisation in Georgia’s laws on cannabis, the country still has one of the strictest drug policies in Europe, with every third prisoner serving their time for drug-related offences. Of the 207 illegal drugs in Georgia, the law does not differentiate quantities for 147, meaning possession of even the tiniest amount could lead to 8–20 years or life imprisonment for certain substances. The availability of treatment is also limited.

[Read more on Georgia’s drug policy OC Media: Georgia’s ‘war against the people’ and the war against a ‘system that stinks’]

Several large rallies have been held in Georgia in recent years calling for a more liberal drug policy. In May 2013, then 27-year-old Beka Tsikarishvili, who later started the White Noise Movement group with others, was arrested for the possession of 69 grammes of cannabis. The ‘Beka is not a criminal’ campaign was supported by thousands in a series of street protests.

In 2015, the Constitutional Court issued an unprecedented ruling on Tsikarishvili’s case, ruling against Parliament that the purchase and storage of up to 69 grammes of dry cannabis should no longer be considered a jailable offence. Subsequent lawsuits challenged larger quantities for cannabis.

In November 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that any criminal sanctions for cannabis use were unconstitutional, effectively decriminalising its use. The ruling was followed by July’s ruling that found that any punishment for cannabis consumption, including fines, was in contradiction with the constitution.

Conservative groups protest against softer drug policy. 12 October 2018 (Mari Nikuradze /OC media)

The ruling, which was harshly criticised by conservative groups and the Church, said it would not be unconstitutional to place certain restrictions on cannabis consumption, including in public spaces, in front of children, or for certain professions.

The latest ruling has produced a legal grey area until new legislation is drafted, which opponents of drug liberalisation have used in their arguments. ‘Are police officers allowed to smoke cannabis? […] students between the lectures? […] MPs between sessions?’, asked Christian conservative portal Zneoba.ge recently, adding: ‘Do Constitutional Court members themselves smoke cannabis? And if they do, did they smoke it before ruling for this legalisation?’

In parallel to battles at the Constitutional Court, some groups have pushed for a complete overhaul of the country’s drug policy by decriminalising all drugs. A protest in December 2017 demanded the urgent adoption of new legislation that had been submitted to parliament in June. The core principle of the proposed changes would be to move the country’s drug policy away from a criminal justice approach, treating drug use instead as a public health issue. According to the authors of the bill, Tbilisi-based advocacy group the National Drug Policy Platform, which consists of over 40 NGOs, current drug policy concentrates on punishing drug-addicts, instead of treating them. The bill was put on hold in March.