The Georgian government has promised a reform of drug laws which currently seen as among the world’s harshest.
Full decriminalisation of narcotics use is one of several options being discussed.
Archil Talakvadze, deputy minister for the penal system, is heading a working group on narcotics policy which the government set up this spring to draft legislative changes for discussion in parliament in this autumn.
He said it would include “not just the decriminalisation of narcotic substances, but many other positive changes”.
As politicians continue discussing the reform, several hundred people took part in a June 2 demonstration in the capital Tbilisi calling for the decriminalisation of marijuana.
Advocates of reform have long argued for softer penalties and a gradation where only the more dangerous substances would qualify for hefty punishments.
Addiction to narcotics was recognised as a medical condition on 2002, but use remains a criminal act.
Under current laws, anyone buying, possessing or using even small quantities of drugs without permission from a doctor will face penalties starting at a 500 lari fine, worth about 300 US dollars. A second offence within a year leads to a 2,000-lari fine or a jail sentence.
David Otiashvili, head of the Alternative Georgia group, explained that the relevant article in the criminal code does not distinguish between dealers and users, or between different types or amounts of illicit drugs.
“The preparation, possession or acquisition of small quantities of an illegal substance or a precursor [chemical used in manufacture] is punishable by a sentence of up to 11 years,” he said. “For large quantities – 0.2 to one gram in the case of heroin – the sentence is seven to 14 years, while for particularly large quantities, over a gram for heroin, it’s eight to 20 years or life.”
Since President Mikhail Saakashvili announced a zero-tolerance policy on drugs in 2006, thousands of people have landed in jail.
They include Giorgi, a 35-year-old who told IWPR how he was arrested for taking an opiate used as a painkiller.
“I was tried for using buprenorphine, sentenced to three years in prison and fined 5,000 laris,” he said. “I wasn’t a criminal, either when I was arrested or before that,” he said. “I was just walking down the street when I was arrested. I pleaded guilty and explained that I wasn’t a regular drug user. My wife was ill and needed an operation. I had a young son, my mother was getting older and I was the only breadwinner.
“I appealed for a reduced sentence, but the court did not listen to me and I served the whole term.”
Now released, Giorgi cannot find work because he has a criminal record.
Alternative Georgia reports that at least 1,500 people are jailed every year for drug offences, at a cost to the state of 18 million laris.
Otiashvili says the penalties for drugs were often higher than for rape, which carries a four-to-six-year sentence, people trafficking at seven to 12 years, and premeditated murder – seven to 15 years.
These draconian laws do not seem to be working, anyway.
Lasha Zaalashvili, head of the Georgian Harm Reduction Network, which brings together 18 NGOs working on drug-related issues, said a study by the Curatio International Foundation this year showed that the number of drug users in Georgia was rising.
“The study showed that the number of drug users had risen from 40,000 to 45,000. The widely publicised campaign against drugs has led to some users in Georgia moving to even more dangerous substances, such as home-made drugs,” Zaalashvili said.
He said the experience of other countries showed that the black market was extremely adaptable, and would evolve to get round almost any methods employed by the police. As heroin and buprenorphine became far harder to obtain in Georgia as a result of the anti-drugs campaign, he said, users moved onto cheaper and more dangerous products like the notorious “crocodile”, a home-made concoction of over-the-counter medicines plus phosphorous and iodine.
Pavel Bem, a member of the Czech parliament who was in Tbilisi for a drugs conference, said the country’s legislation was badly in need of reform. He said drug use should not be treated purely as a crime, but also as a public health problem.
“The dream of a world completely free of drugs is a utopia. It is impossible to solve this problem completely,” he said. “The experience of the last 20 years shows that sending users to jail is very ineffective and expensive for the state [and means that] resources aren’t available for treatment and rehabilitation.”
Citing figures showing that only a quarter of the 45,000 users in Georgia acces the healthcare system, Bem noted that criminalisation created invisible groups who were vulnerable to infection with HIV or hepatitis C but were liable not to seek treatment.
Manana Vardiashvili works for Liberali magazine.