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Georgian Church slams ‘drug legalisation’

22 June 2018
Meeting of the Holy Synod (patriarchate.ge)

The Georgian Orthodox Church has come out against ‘the legalisation’ of drugs in Georgia, saying it is considering denying religious rituals to Orthodox Christians who die of an overdose. In a meeting of the Holy Synod, the Church’s ruling body, they called for harsh sentences for drug dealers, while also advocating treatment for users.

In a record of Thursday’s Holy Synod meeting published on the their official website, the Church said that allowing the cultivation of cannabis would mean legalising drug dealing, which would bring ‘severe consequences’ to country.

The Church also warned of a ‘grave demographic situation’ in Georgia and the ‘sin of abortion’, including sex selective abortions, calling for ‘anti-abortion propaganda’ and government support for pregnant women including ‘social support and healthcare’.

Referring to an unspecified ‘current lawsuit’ they claimed was challenging fines for possession of cannabis under 70 grammes, the current administrative penalty, the Church warned that a ruling in the plaintiff’s favor would mean ‘de facto legalisation’ of cannabis in Georgia.

The Synod argued that overturning the administrative penalty would result in people ‘finding ways of getting this drug legally, and that this would eventually set the grounds for the legal cultivation of cannabis, which is absolutely unacceptable’.

Non-parliamentary political party Girchi is currently challenging any administrative punishment for cannabis use, which is presently set at a ₾500 fine ($204) or 1–6 months of correctional work.

Girchi’s leader Zurab Japaridze urged the Church ‘to understand that[…] the lawsuit relates to the Constitution, not to biblical text, which they can interpret as it is their competence’. He expressed hope that the Church’s statement would not affect the Court’s decision.

‘The lawsuit does not address the issue of the decriminalisation or legalisation of consuming or obtaining and possessing drugs’, Guram Imnadze of the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) told Rustavi 2.

In a separate ongoing case, EMC is representing nine Georgian citizens challenging prison sentences for obtaining and possessing all drugs for personal use.  They argue that the personal use of 10 different drugs — including heroin, morphine, and cannabis resin — can harm only the user, thereby making a prison sentence ‘disproportionate’.

In the Church’s proceedings, they claimed to have never supported sending addicts to prison, and instead supported treatment for drug users and addicts, calling on the government to establish ‘special rehabilitation centers’.

They also underscored the need for better public information on ‘healthy lifestyles’, including through ‘special teaching courses in educational institutions’.

However, they said ‘the harshest legal prosecution of drug dealers and distributors should an integral part of the liberalisation of drug use’.

They also criticised a ruling by the Constitutional Court ‘towards the liberalisation of drugs’ which they said ‘poses a great danger and gives a serious stimulus to the wide distribution and consumption of drugs’.

In 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that imprisonment for the purchase and possession of up to 70 grammes of cannabis for personal use, was ‘inappropriately harsh’ and unconstitutional. In 2017 they ruled imprisonment for cannabis use altogether unconstitutional, effectively decriminalising the consumption of the drug.

‘A strict and repressive drug policy’

Public Defender Nino Lomjaria said on Friday that she ‘understood’ that the Georgian Church, as well as other religious organisations, ‘cannot support a liberal approach to drug policy’. Nevertheless, she said it was her ‘definite position that prison sentences should be abolished for drug users and addicts. We have had a strict and repressive drug policy for a long time, but despite this, we have not seen a reduction in the number of drug users — quite the contrary’.

According to regular studies conducted by the Bemoni and Curatio International Foundation, there has been a steady rise in the number of users injecting drugs in Georgia, which reached 52,500 in 2016 (compared to 49,700 in 2014). This puts Georgia third in the world proportionally, in terms of the number of problem drug users, after the Seychelles and Russia.

In her statement, the public defender reiterated that her office supports ‘moving from a repressive policy to a care and rehabilitation-based policy’.

Healthcare Committee Chair Akaki Zoidze, who has advocated for adoption of the a draft decriminalisation law, hailed the Synod’s position, noting that drug users’ ‘rehabilitation often takes place within the Church’. ‘Drug users should not be in jail just for using drugs, which is something the Church believes as well. In this regard, we are in absolute agreement’, said Zoidze.

Despite internal divisions on the issue of drug reform, the ruling Georgian Dream Party has said it plans to decriminalise drug usage while keeping measures against drug trafficking stringent.

Speaking in front of Parliament on 20 June, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia claimed that law enforcement agencies confiscated 13 kg of heroin, 7,000 methadone pills, and ‘many other drugs’ over the past 5 months.

‘When it comes to drugs, there will be no closed doors for the Interior Ministry’, said Gagharia, referring to recent police raids on the Bassiani and Caffe Gallery nightclubs that sparked large youth-led protests.

On Friday, police again visited Bassiani, citing the need to retrieve financial documents.

Drug liberalisation

Advocates of drug policy reform argue that Georgia has one of the strictest drug policies in Europe, with every third prisoner serving their time for drug-related offences.

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

Large numbers have taken to the streets a number of times in recent years in support of a more liberal drug policy. In May 2013, then 27-year-old Beka Tsikarishvili, now a leader of the movement, 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 purchase and storing of up to 69 grammes of dry cannabis should no longer considered an imprisonable offence. He was finally fined with ₾2,000 ($820) in August 2017.

A December 2017 protest demanded urgent adoption of new legislation that had been submitted to the parliament in June. The core principle of the 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. If the bill is adopted, distribution and trafficking of drugs would still be treated as a criminal offence, with possession of small quantities of all drugs for personal use decriminalised.

The bill was put on hold in March as an interagency commission expressed support for a new government draft drug policy law which doesn’t include decriminalisation. The new bill has faced backlash from activists and rights groups as not going far enough to address the core issues.

On 8 May, the Parliament Committee on Healthcare and Social Issues postponed the hearing of the draft law for the third time. Leader of the Parliament majority Archil Talakvadze reiterated the Georgian Dream’s support for the policy changes that would focus on prevention, but also called for ‘bigger support for the law enforcement agencies in its fight against organised drug crime’.

Later that day, speaking with journalists, Health Minister Davit Sergeenko dismissed the idea of ‘drug liberalisation’ and advocated for a strategy in favour of the ‘reduction of supply and usage’ of drugs.

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