They came with bags full of cups of urine and left them in a heart shape for the prime minister to see. But this protest in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, against drug testing was not about lifestyle choices. Rather, the scores of protesters are part of a growing movement seeking the decriminalization of marijuana as a civil right.
Unlike in the United States, nobody in this conservative South-Caucasus state is touting the benefits of marijuana for medical use; nor does a campaign exist to legalize pot. The fight in Georgia is about perceived excessive punishments for marijuana possession.
In Georgia, as in some Western countries, marijuana use or possession ranks as a criminal offense. Third-time offenders can receive a seven- to 14-year jail term that is almost as long as the terms for murder (seven to 15 years).
The government, which makes no official distinction between marijuana and hard drugs, so far has been reluctant to change sentencing guidelines.
Though illegal, marijuana, which grows wild in many parts of Georgia, was openly used in villages and among some Tbilisi circles until 2006, when, as part of a crackdown on crime, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration made the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs punishable by a first-time fine of 500 laris ($280); a sum nearly 30-percent higher than the 2006 average monthly household income, according to official data. Mandatory drug testing at the discretion of police went into effect that year, too.
Between 2008 and 2013, some 190,000 people were hauled into police stations for drug tests; 34 percent tested positive, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reports. Controversy runs strong about the grounds for such tests. The June 9 urine protest was held against police allegedly having crashed a Tbilisi party without a warrant to haul off 14 people suspected of drug-use to undergo urinalyses. Thirteen tested positive for marijuana and were fined 500 lari ($280).
Since Georgia’s criminal code does not differentiate between soft- and hard-drugs, these individuals will be grouped in with data on other drug users. The overall number of people who have been prosecuted for smoking or possessing marijuana is unknown.
Twenty-eight-year-old journalist Beqa Tsikarishvili, however, is one of them. During a 2013 shakedown at Tbilisi’s central train station, police found four grams of marijuana in his pocket. He claims that a promise of leniency prompted him to hand over another 65 grams.
“But they didn’t cooperate,” he alleged. Now out of prison on a 10,000-lari ($5,600) bail, Tsikarishvili, a first-time offender, faces seven to 14 years in jail if found guilty of marijuana possession.
Angry about his treatment, Tsikarishvili launched a campaign to liberalize punishments for marijuana use that has since morphed into a decriminalization initiative. He now ranks as a semi-national symbol, with supporters staging rallies in downtown Tbilisi and for his court appearances.
But the initiative still stops short of a call for legalization. “Not everybody understands what decriminalization means,” Tsikarishvili commented. “They think ‘legalization,’ and that’s not what I’m saying at all.”
Yet the publicity for Tsikarishvili’s case and the pro-decriminalization movement is starting to grab the attention of some legislators.
“Beqa’s is a very exemplary case that shows us something should be changed in our law,” said Tamar Kordaia, an MP for the governing Georgian Dream coalition. “First of all, people who smoke pot do not represent a threat to society. Beqa was never convicted of a crime. He works, pays taxes and brings money into society. Putting him in prison would take him out of society and the state would have to spend money feeding him, clothing him and taking care of him.”
Lawmaker Zurab Japaridze, a member of ex-President Saakashvili’s United National Movement, Georgia’s largest opposition group, claims his party would vote for decriminalization.
Any such change, however, probably would need support from 31-year-old Prime Minister Irakli Gharibasvili. After a June 2 rally against the country’s tough drug laws, he underlined that the decriminalization of marijuana would never happen as long as the Georgian Dream remains in power.
That stance, a reverse from earlier campaign promises, does not surprise decriminalization supporters. They underscore that Gharibashvili served over a year as interior minister before becoming prime minister in November 2013, and contend that the Interior Ministry uses Georgia’s pot policy as a tool for control.
Interior Ministry representatives told EurasiaNet.org that they were too busy to respond to questions about Georgia’s drug policies.
Despite his earlier statements, Gharibashvili has indicated discussions about changing sentencing guidelines are possible. Health Minister David Sergeenko has conceded that the state has an "inappropriately strict” approach against soft drugs and that “radical action would [sic] no longer be taken against cannabis users,” according to the government-run news portal, Agenda.ge.
To social psychologist Gaga Nizharadze, that suggests that change could be coming.
"I expect the government will decriminalize it or at least reduce the punishment. When they say they are talking about something, that usually means they'll do something,” said Nizharadze, a former board member of the Open Society Georgia Foundation.
If not, activists maintain they are ready to carry on. Said Davit Subeliani, one of the organizers of the June 2 decriminalization rally: “We need to educate people and destroy the myths about pot.”