Drug policy in Georgia - giving up on reprisals?
Thousands of people gathered on Rustaveli Avenue to protest against the Georgian government’s drug policy. It was one of the largest protests in the past few years.
The rally, under the slogan ‘What else could happen?’, was organized following the arrest of two young men.
The members of the rap group ‘Birja Mafia’ were arrested for the illegal possession of 2 gr. of MDMA psychoactive narcotics, more commonly called the ‘club drug’. Meanwhile, the arrestees claimed the drugs had been planted on them and that the real reason behind their arrest was a music video in which they mocked the police. Finally they were released on bail.
Georgian authorities are oftentimes blamed for taking advantage of the strict drug policy as a means of reprisal against their opponents or some ‘unfavorable’ individuals.
The Birja-Mafia duo case is hardly the only one involving drugs, which raised questions among both ordinary citizens as well as NGOs and observers.
Wall inscriptions that read: ‘Mom, you’ve been left alone, but what should I do?’ could often be found in Tbilisi streets.
This is a quote from a suicide note by Demur Sturua, 22, a native of Dapnari village (Western Georgia), which he left to his mother before committing suicide.
In his suicide note, Demur claimed that Goderdzi Tevzadze, a local police officer, regularly used violence against him, threatening to frame him if he refused to name those who were growing marijuana in the village. Forensic examination revealed that Sturua had been beaten before committing suicide. However, the policeman wasn’t punished, as the court found him ‘not guilty’.
The death of Levan Abzianidze, 56, also stirred up public protests. Abzianidze was found dead in one of Kutaisi’s parks in June 2015. As it later turned out, shortly before his death he’d been forced to undergo drug testing at the police department. Abzianidze’s family claims that he’d been urged to take diuretics, which caused a sudden drop in his blood pressure. The state forensic examination revealed traces of diuretics in his system.
However, no one has been held liable in this case, either. The results of the prosecutor’s investigation into the case haven’t been made public so far.
“The Sturua and Abzianidze cases are the direct outcome of a repressive drug policy. This is particularly evident in Sturua’s case, where a person was actually driven to suicide. However, the man whom he referred to in his letter as the culprit, hasn’t been punished yet,” says Shota Digmelashvili, the editor-in-chief of the Forbes Georgia magazine. In his words, it’s not an isolated case and such cases often lead to fatal consequences.
Why is Georgia’s current drug policy regarded as repressive?
Drug-related issues are still regarded by the community as a taboo that may have far-reaching consequences. Therefore, many just avoid openly discussing it. So, it’s hard to track the precise number of drug addicts.
According to Bemoni NGO’s data, there are 49 700 ‘injection’ drug users in Georgia. However, experts say the actual rate of drug addicts is higher. Also, the aforesaid data doesn’t include those who use other types of drugs or only use them occasionally.
According to the Council of Europe report for 2015, every third convict in Georgia has been sentenced for drug-related offences.
The Criminal Code of Georgia provides for a prison sentence from 4 to 7 years for procurement and possession of drugs, whereas in the case of possession of a particularly large quantity of drugs – from 8 to 20 years, or a life sentence. A clear-cut drug dose criterion, on which the severity of punishment depends, has been set only with regard to marijuana, whereas one may be sentenced to 20 years for the possession of 500gr. of cocaine or ecstasy.
Although the legislation is rather harsh, the truth is that the threat of jail can hardly solve the problem. A Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) study revealed that 89% of addicted prisoners get back on drugs immediately upon release, whereas the rest of them within 11 months.
As it turns out, it’s more costly for the state to cover prisoner’s incarceration expenses, than to pay for their substitution therapy program (when methadone or another drug is given to a drug addict to reduce withdrawal symptoms): according to the Ministry of Corrections of Georgia, prisoner incarceration amount to GEL 31.2 (about USD 13) per day, and GEL 11 417 (about USD 4 800) annually. It costs the government a total of GEL 40 million per year to keep those who have been arrested on drug charges.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry spends GEL 4.1 million (approximately USD 1.7 million) on drug treatment and substitution therapy program.
Consequently, the government spends ten times more on the punishment of drug addicts, than on their treatment.
Keta Gabunia, the owner of a Tbilisi-based night club and an activist of the White Noise Movement, which opposes the repressive drug policy, was arrested at the airport upon her arrival from Berlin. After being searched and the naroctic drugs found on her seized, she was taken to hospital and examined using a CT scan.
Under the Georgian legislation, law-enforcement is entitled to conduct forced drug testing of citizens on the grounds of ‘reasonable suspicion’.
According to the Georgian MoI data, 37 503 citizens were subjected to forced drug tests in 2015, and 13 138 (35%) out of the total examined individuals turned out to be drug users.
Almost similar results were observed in the past few years, from 2 102 to 2 104 – in 70% of cases (7 in 10 tested individuals) the ‘reasonable suspicion’ of the police proved to be erroneous.
This procedure is not just humiliating for citizens, but it also costs the government dearly. GEL 15 million (more than USD 6 million) was spent on forced drug testing in 2015 alone. Roughly speaking, about 2 tons of urine were analyzed with the test amounting to GEL 6 000 per liter. A total of 113 000 people or 3.2% of Georgia’s population were tested in the period from 2013 till Q1, 2016.
Is drug policy a weapon of political revenge?
“The authorities are reluctant to soften the legislation and there are several reasons for that,” says Lekso Machavariani, founder of the 2 June movement that stands for the decriminalization of marijuana.
He believes that the main reason for this is that government officials use the drug policy for maintaining power and fighting their opponents.
“None of the governments will give up on this legislation. A longer sentence for small quantities (of drugs), the ease with which one can have drugs planted on them, all this is a perfect means for fighting ‘unfavorable’ ones. To get rid of the temptation, it is necessary to urgently change the legislation,” says Machavariani.
‘Ivanishvili’s (former Georgian prime minister and business tycoon) personal prisoner’ – that’s how Eliso Kiladze, a journalist, referred to her son, detained for drug use in March this year. She believes he had drugs planted on him by the police, and the real reason behind his arrest was revenge for her critical publications. Kiladze’s son, David Kharshiladze, had 0.1626gr. of drugs containing buprenorphine ‘found’ on him. This means that if he is found guilty, he will have to spend between 8 to 20 years behind bars. Kharshiladze’s case raised many questions among the public and the opposition.
The Georgian President’s daughter, Anna Margvelashvili, has also spoken out against the repressive policy.
She has joined each and every campaign for the liberalization of the anti-drug legislation, and makes appearances on TV. She says that ‘dissidents’ oftentimes just have drugs planted on them. Anna Margvelashvili also claims that some of her friends have had drugs planted on them due to political reasons, so as to discredit the President’s family. (There are rather tense relations between President Margvelashvili and the ruling ‘Georgian Dream’ party, despite the fact that Margvelashvili won the 2013 presidential election as the Georgian Dream candidate. Speaking about Margvelashvili, the ex-Premier, Bidzina Ivanishvili, even referred to him as ‘a big disappointment’).
On 7 July, the court acquitted Mikheil Tatarashvili, a friend of the President’s daughter, who was charged with possession of large amounts of narcotics.
Drug policy makes for an increase in revenues
According to expert opinion, finances are one more reason the Georgian authorities oppose liberalization of the law. In 2009-2012, the state revenue gained from administrative fines alone was over GEL 13 million (slightly more than USD 5.5 million), whereas in 2013-2014, they totaled over GEL 11 million (approximately USD 4.6 million). Those figures don’t include the amounts received as a result of plea bargains. The latter was commonly applied during Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency.
The rally the demanding release of the ‘Birja-Mafia’ duo members wasn’t the only one held in recent years.
The proponents of drug policy liberalization regularly hold similar rallies, set up organizations, launch loud social media campaigns, all demanding changes in the legislation.
The White Noise movement is one of the most active groups in this regard. This very movement organized the rally in support of the ‘Birja-Mafia’ members, and, as a result, the authorities change their rhetoric.
Earlier, the authorities were thoroughly against the revision of the legislation (for example, Sopho Kiladze, the Chair of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, stated that decriminalization of drug use posed a risk to the gene pool) and refused to accept the opposition’s demand. However, after the rally it quickly changed its position.
When addressing the Georgian Parliament, the country’s Premier, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, called for liberalization of the drug policy. Georgia’s Vice Premier, Kakha Kaladze, stood with the same initiative (on a side note, the local government elections are scheduled in Georgia for the end of October this year – JAMnews).
Before that, the authorities had never publicly supported the liberalization of the drug policy, except for the general wording in the ruling party’s program and personal opinions of some of its representatives.
MPs also followed the government members’ suit and changed their opinion. According to Giorgi Volsky, the Parliamentary Vice-Speaker, a stack of bills on the long-term drug policy reform will be introduced to lawmakers by the autumn session. Meanwhile, on 16 June, MPs approved the Justice Ministry’s proposed bill, under which 70gr. of dried and crude cannabis shall be regarded as a small quantity, procurement and possession of which shall entail only an administrative penalty.
However, it’s unclear so far whether the authorities’ milder tone is really going to have any effect on the legislation, or if it’s just a campaign move.
Beka Tsikarishvili, a White Noise activist, believes that the scandal surrounding the ‘Birja-Mafia’ duo accelerated the liberalization process. Together with representatives of some other NGOs, he was personally engaged in elaboration of the bill which the government is expected to submit to Parliament in autumn this year. According to Tsikarishvili, if approved, the bill will radically change the country’s drug policy. This, first of all, implies shifting the focus from punishment to treatment.
All three opposition parties represented in the Georgian Parliament – the United National Movement, European Georgia (two split parts of the former ruling party, that also pursued a rather tough drug policy), as well as the Patriots’ Alliance, agree with the need for the urgent liberalization of the drug policy. On the one hand, the current legislation is humiliating for citizens and provides for an inadequately heavy penalty, and, on the other hand, it is often used for persecution of political opponents. European Georgia cites, as an example, the case of MP Tengiz Gunava, who was arrested for the alleged procurement and possession of narcotics soon after the change of power in Georgia in 2012. Later on, the court found him ‘not guilty’, resulting in five employees of the Georgian MoI being dismissed.
The ‘Girchi’ political party puts forward even more radical demands. The party members believe that the use of all types of drugs should be decriminalized and cannabis should be legalized. According to ‘Girchi’ members, this is going to bring great economic benefits to Georgia. They cite the example of Portugal, were all narcotic drugs have been decriminalized since 2011.
As a result, the number of drug users has dropped by half, the rate of mortality due to drug misuse has reduced, HIV/AIDS patients have dwindled in number and the criminal situation in the country has improved.
The majority of Georgian experts and substance abuse professionals support the liberalization policy. Though, there are some exceptions among them. For example, Gela Lezhava, a narcologist, believes that if the government doesn’t lavishly finance the substitution therapy and drug user assistance programs, the number of drug users may increase as a result of the liberalization. According to Lezhava, it will be far more efficient to create ‘an unfavorable environment’ for drug addicts, including imposing high fees, monitoring of drug users and short-term arrests.
Meanwhile, David Otiashvili, the Director of Alternative-Georgia NGO, claims that ‘none of the countries that liberalized their drug legislation, and there are many such examples, reported a growth in drug use rates. In his words, ‘decriminalization, in no way, implies promotion of drug use, as some people believe’.
A large segment of the Georgian community apparently shares the opinion about the need for softening the punishments of the drug policy. A public survey, conducted by Alternative-Georgia NGO, shows that 69% of respondents support decriminalization of cannabis, while 38% of these think that ‘smoking weed’ shouldn’t entail any administrative penalty at all. The majority of respondents (54%) believe that using injected drugs shouldn’t be punishable by a prison sentence. Of those surveyed, 20% don’t regard drug users as criminals. They share the opinion that drug users should be treated, rather than punished.