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Georgian activist detained after smoking cannabis live on air

5 September 2018
Civil activist Giga Makarashvili lit a cannabis joint live on air on Tuesday (Iberia TV)

Police in Georgia have launched a probe into journalist and civil activist Giga Makarashvili after he lit a cannabis joint live on air on Tuesday on Iberia TV. The Interior Ministry released a statement on Wednesday that while not mentioning Makarashvili, outlined the ministry’s planned new restrictions on cannabis following the legalisation of its use in July.

The show’s anchor Vakhtang Khumziashvili, also Iberia’s head of news, promptly responded saying ‘we cannot let you do that’, and ended the show immediately.

Police detained Makarashvili on Tuesday evening but released him soon after. According to him, he was tested for ‘various drugs’ but he said police did not mention any specific offence. Makarashvili told Netgazeti afterwards that he was making the point that ‘smoking cannabis is now legal in Georgia’, and that no one should be detained for this anymore.  

On 30 July, the Constitutional Court ruled that fines for cannabis use contradicted the right to a person’s free development — effectively legalising cannabis use in Georgia. However, the cultivation and sale of cannabis remain illegal, creating a grey area in the legal system until legislators come up with new regulations.

In a statement on Wednesday, appearing to refer to Makarashvili’s arrest, the Interior Ministry said a lack of legal framework following the court’s ruling was ‘obstructing the effective fight against illegal circulation of drugs and encouraging their use’.

The ministry said they had prepared legal amendments which they would soon submit to parliament to restrict consumption of cannabis in public places, including public transport, in the presence of children, and in educational institutions.

The ministry also said they intended to restrict consumption for some professions while on duty, including teachers, medics, and other public servants. They also said ‘certain professions’ would be banned from working in their profession and would ‘lose their civil rights’ if they broke the law. They also said the legislation would make driving under the influence, providing an underage person with cannabis, or persuading them to use it a criminal offence.

Conservative backlash

The Interior Ministry told Netgazeti that ‘popularisation or advertisement’ of illicit substances was still prohibited by Georgia’s Administrative Code, punishable by a fine of ₾500 ($200), and that they were investigating Makarashvili for this. Under the same law, informing someone or the public how to produce, acquire, or use illegal substances also counts as offence.

In their July verdict, the four senior judges on the court also greenlit a possible ban on cannabis consumption in public spaces or in the vicinity of children, including in educational facilities, but this would require further legal amendments.

The same fine of ₾500 was also applicable for consuming cannabis until non-parliamentary opposition party Girchi’s successful challenge in the Constitutional Court, the implications of which were the topic of Iberia’s Tavisupali Sivrtse (Free Space) show on Tuesday night.

While criticising the remaining restrictions on cannabis, Makarashvili took out the cannabis joint and lit it up, causing outrage from conservative guests on the show. Before the show was cut, Koba Davitashvili, a former Georgian Dream MP, could be heard saying that this was exactly what they wanted to prevent from happening. Another guest, Dimitri Lortkipanidze, a prominent conservative activist with links to the far-right, called the police following the show, arguing that drugs were ‘forced’ onto him against his will and that his ‘rights were violated’.

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

Following the Constitutional Court ruling, an initiative group led by Davitashvili started collected 200,000 signatures demanding changes to the constitution that would ‘point out that the right to personal development does not imply the right to self-destruction, self-degradation, and self-harm’.

The group also demanded the Constitutional Court be abolished, delegating constitutional judicial authority to general courts, similar to ‘many European countries’. Abolishing the Court was also suggested by a representative of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but the Church later distanced itself from the idea. However, the Church did express opposition to ‘drugs legalisation’ earlier in July.

Lortkipanidze argued during the TV show that the campaign to legalise Cannabis, ‘financed by the Soros Foundation [the Open Society Georgia Foundation]’ and which culminated in the Constitutional Court ruling, triggered a spike in drugs consumption, including among children, who he claimed had ‘started to smoke cannabis uncontrollably’.

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