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Georgia, a country where every third prisoner is serving time for drugs, may be about to transform its strict drug policy into a far more liberal system. Activists and reformers are hoping that new legislation could change Georgia’s system away from what they call ‘the war against the people’.
On 15 September 2016, a 46-year-old man slashed his own stomach outside the Georgian Government Chancellery, where dozens had gathered to protest the country’s drug policy. He claimed police had terrorised and pressured him into implicating his friend, a drug user, saying the investigation into his case would not be just.
In 2013, Beso Khutsishvili had just been released from prison where he had served 8 years on drugs charges. Several days after his release, 3 police officers took him to the police station demanding cooperation, he claims.
‘You must help us arrest Lasha Bakhutashvili, they said. Had I refused, they threatened the safety of my children. I didn’t care about myself, but when they mentioned my children… There was nothing human about them, they were totally capable of doing it’, Khutsishvili said, in a video published on 30 May 2016 by the White Noise Movement, a group campaigning for a softer drugs policy.
Khutsishvili says police would take him to the pharmacy to buy precursors, but he would cook the drugs and consume them immediately, to avoid implicating his friend. This continued for a month until he wasn’t able to avoid them any longer, and he was forced to implicate a friend, he explains.
‘That day they controlled me to ensure I wouldn’t escape. I cooked it and went to Lasha. They arrested him. It was krokodil’, Khutsishvili says.
Lasha Bakhutashvili was arrested in 2013 for the possession of 0.00009 grammes of desomorphine, aka krokodil, found in a syringe, an amount so small, it can’t be seen with the naked eye. This carried a sentence of 5–8 years in jail at the time.
After Bakhutashvili’s arrest, police raided Khutsishvili’s house and arrested him too. ‘It was the same police department’, he says.
After 3 months, he was released. He tried to commit suicide, he says, but there was nothing he could change.
‘Is there anything else more horrible they can do to me? They made me lose everything… I want to address those who do not use drugs — don’t do it. And please don’t be silent. The more people are silent, the more bold they [police] feel and think that the whole country belongs to them’, Khutsishvili says in the video.
Despite complaining to the Prosecutor’s Office of police abuse of power more than a year ago, the investigation has still not finished.
‘The war against the people’
‘Repressive drug policy should end. The war against the people must come to an end. This system stinks’ — these messages have been shouted on numerous demonstrations in Georgia over the last few years.
Khutsishvili is one of many drug users who has been speaking out against Georgia’s strict drug laws. Abuse of power by police, including planting drugs, imprisonment instead of treatment, and undefined drug quantities in the the law which results in long prison sentences are some of the issues they say need to to be tackled.
In August 2016, 22-year-old Demur Sturua committed suicide, allegedly under pressure from police. A police officer charged for abuse of power and incitement to suicide was found not guilty by the court.
In June 2016 rap duo the Birja Mafia were arrested on charges of MDMA possession, soon after releasing a music video where a police officer is depicted as a dog. They insist the drugs were planted on them. After thousands took to the streets protesting repressive drug policy and restriction of freedom of speech, both were released on bail.
Demonstrations against drug policy have made up an increasingly large proportion of civil protests in recent years. So, what is it about the system that activists say stinks so bad?
Just how repressive is Georgian drug policy
According to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Georgia has the third highest problem drug use rate worldwide, after Russia and Seychelles. Relying on data gathered in 2014, the World Drug Report 2017 suggests that around 50,000 people between 18–64 inject drugs in Georgia.
This would make the prevalence of injecting drugs around 2.2%, 2–3 times the estimated European average.
According to 2015 data from the Council of Europe, 30.8% of all Georgian prisoners are in jail for drug offences.
Addiction researcher Davit Otiashvili, the head of drug dependence research organisation Alternative Georgia, tells OC Media that Georgian drug policy focuses on two areas: reducing the availability of drugs on the market and reducing demand for drugs with harsh punishments. The country fails at both, he says.
‘We do manage to reduce availability of certain drugs for some time, but soon they are substituted by new, usually more toxic and harmful substances. Thus, it does not change the number of drug users in any way’, says Otiashvili.
As for reducing demand for drugs, he says Georgia is one of the best examples worldwide of how fear is ineffective as the main deterrent against drug use.
Yet another challenge Georgian drug policy faces is treatment. Only 10% of all drug users who require help get treatment, and this does not look to be changed any time soon, Otiashvili says.
‘We imprison more people than we treat for drugs dependence. At the same time, we know that prison does not correct people. The majority of drug users, 9 out of 10, use drugs again after leaving prison, which is very expensive. For the money the state spends on one prisoner annually, we could include 5 people in the methadone substitution therapy programme’, says Otiashvili.
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 lifetime imprisonment for certain substances.
‘Law enforcement is interested in keeping these laws the way they are. They provide an easy way for them to keep control of people. They can imprison users for the remains found in a syringe, or keep them out of prison by offering a plea deal asking for cooperation and information in exchange. Police use these tools very efficiently’, says Otiashvili.
This could all change if a draft law prepared by a number of rights groups who have united under the National Drug Platform is enacted. Their main goal is decriminalisation of drug use. But the road to decriminalisation has not been easy, and they would not be where they are now if not for one particular case which has sparked a new wave of activism.
‘Beka is not a criminal’
In May 2013, then 27-year-old Beka Tsikarishvili was arrested for the possession of 69 grammes of cannabis. He faced a possible 7–14 years in prison, like many others with similar charges, but it was not to happen. The ‘Beka is not a criminal’ campaign was supported by thousands and made a breakthrough in Georgian drug policy, paving the way towards decriminalisation.
He had only few grams in his pocket. ‘Who did you get it from? Where did you buy it? Who is the dealer? Who else uses?’ — a cascade of questions followed at the police department upon his arrest. Eventually, confessed he had some more at home, as they threatened to arrest his girlfriend as well.
He was released on bail after 18 days in prison, on ₾10,000 ($3,700) bail.
‘The [prison] was full of drug users. More and more users were coming in, mostly arrested for desomorphine, a popular drug at the time. These people were from the lower social class, people with no influence or patronage. About 40 out of 50 people there had been taken in for drug abuse’, Beka tells OC Media.
He was asking for a plea deal, but the prosecution did not agree. That’s when he decided to go public and record his story on video. The publicity was followed by solidarity — Beka is not a criminal — a public campaign, kicked off and became a rallying point.
In 2015, the Constitutional Court issued an unprecedented ruling on Beka’s case, ruling against Parliament that purchase and storing of up to 69 grammes of dry cannabis should no longer considered an imprisonable offence.
Beka was safe from prison, as well as many others like him, but drug policy remained the same. The campaign had changed a lot, including public opinion, Beka says. That’s when the White Noise Movement was created, an organisation that still leads the campaign against repressive policy.
‘It was not only cannabis that was a problem. It was a systemic problem, right?! I saw how drug users were suffering in prison. Those who were not able afford bail had to go to jail. Not everybody can afford ₾1,000 or ₾2,000 ($370–$740) and they are doomed to prison’, Beka says.
After the win, few others have addressed the Constitutional Court. Other victories include abolishing imprisonment for possession of raw cannabis under 140 grammes, desomorphine up to 0,00009 grammes, and growing cannabis up to 151 grammes.
Who supports reforms
In a 2016 public opinion survey conducted by Alternative Georgia, 55% of respondents said they are against jailing drug users.
Another poll, conducted by the National Democratic Institute in 2017, suggested that 57% of people are against jail for use of any kind of drugs.
In April 2016, the National Platform for Drug Policy was created, uniting more than 40 organisations and groups. They have come up with a draft law aimed at decriminalising possession of small quantities and for personal use.
At first, many state officials denounced the initiative, saying decriminalisation was not going to happen, but now the bill has many supporters in the parliament. On 22 June, the draft law was put to parliament by five MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream. According to the website of the White Noise Movement, the bill already has 49 supporters in parliament. It needs the support of at least 76 to pass.
‘Many among our colleagues and among our society have the wrong idea about the bill. Punishment will still remain for using drugs, but what changes is that punishment will proceed under the Administrative Code and people won’t be jailed. The bill will also determine amounts [to be considered as personal possession] — these are two key changes’, the head of the Healthcare Committee Akaki Zoidze, one of the initiators of the bill, said.
The statement was followed up by the head of the Legal Committee of Parliament, Eka Beselia, who elaborated that ‘it’s time to reach an agreement’.
‘We should find a compromise for a model which will enable parliament to support the decision aimed at caring about people, carrying out a policy which will be founded on care, not repression’, Beselia said on 8 November, at the conference on drug policy.
But there are some in government who have been less supportive, such as Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who said she does not support ‘full decriminalisation’. She made the statement at a press conference on 13 October.
What would the bill change
According to the bill, besides decriminalising possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use, it will determine what constitutes small amounts for all illegal drugs. It includes a policy based on four directions, education, prevention, harm reduction, and adequate law enforcement.
Davit Otiashvili explains that besides changes in legislation, developing support services for drug users are a must for successful reform.
One such services is creation of an Assessment and Redirection Committee, which will decide if a drug user needs further care. This service is not included in the bill, but must follow after the draft law is enacted, the National Drug Platform suggests.
‘Now, when police arrest a person they think is under the influence of drugs, they test them and if they are found to be under the influence, they get fined and released. Nobody takes notice if this person needs help, why they were using drugs in the first place… This commission will learn their situation and try to provide help’, says Otiashvili.
While some officials are still uncertain if the bill should go forward, policymakers are beginning to agree that liberalisation of drug policy is necessary. Specialists suggest this has proved to be successful in Portugal, and that if enacted, it would save thousands from spending years in prison, a time they can spend more productively on treatment.