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Green Defiance Challenges Law, Power in Georgia

FILE - Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles, July 11, 2014.
FILE - Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles, July 11, 2014.

For Zurab Japaridze, libertarian and once a member of parliament, legalizing marijuana in his home country of Georgia is a New Year's resolution.

Surrounded by his fellow pro-weed activists, the 41-year-old founder of the New Political Center-Girchi party planted marijuana seeds on New Year's Eve in a televised event. Tbilisi-based Girchi's office has been turned into a greenhouse for 77 pots hosting cannabis breeds from all parts of the country.

This action is part of a campaign calling for marijuana legalization and decriminalization of all sorts of drugs. Japaridze, who considers the cultivation of cannabis as a civil defiance and a political act against Georgia's tough narco-politics, also realizes his cameo might turn into a courtroom drama for himself and a couple dozen of his supporters, who voluntarily and demonstratively violate Georgia's criminal code.

Repressive narco-politics

“Frankly, I don't know what happens next. Government can either ignore us, punish us or react with legislative amendments that we have been calling for,” Japaridze said. But he is at odds with Georgian legislation. For Japaridze and his followers across different social groups, smoking marijuana is a human rights issue, “meaning you are entitled to make decisions about your own body and health.”

For Georgian law, it is a crime, also carrying the burden of a stigmatization deeply rooted in stereotypes.

The former Soviet republic, a country of fewer than 4 million with proclaimed Euro-Atlantic aspirations, has what many civil activists call repressive narco-politics, jailing drug users for up to 14 years.

According to the White Noise Movement, a civilian group confronting Georgia's narco-politics, an average of 112 people are drug screened every day, as the government has tested close to 300,000 people and spent $6.3 million over the last seven years. Drug traces were found in 35 percent of those who were forcibly tested.

Court rules sentence too harsh

Compulsory urine drug screening is one of the main issues for the National Narcopolitics Platform — an umbrella for 40 civil society, human rights and drug expert entities — that is calling for “more humane” narco-politics.

“Three main amendments we regard of crucial importance, and are proposing, are to decriminalize use of nonsignificant amounts of drugs, to define dosage calculations by law and to eliminate police malpractice of forced urine testing,” said Guram Imnadze, a member of the platform and a human rights lawyer.

Imnadze presented 27-year-old Beka Tsikarishvili, who was arrested in 2013 for possessing 65 grams of cannabis and who faced imprisonment for 7-14 years. In the case, Beka Tsikarishvili v. Parliament of Georgia, the Constitutional Court ruled that applying imprisonment as a punishment for purchasing and possessing up to 70 grams of marijuana for personal use is unconstitutional, saying the punishment amounts to “inhuman and cruel treatment that infringes upon human dignity.”

“Anyone facing similar charges of possessing marijuana in an amount of up to 70 grams for personal use will no longer be imprisoned,” said Imnadze. However, it does not apply to cases of selling marijuana. Neither does it apply to cultivation of cannabis, an action punishable by up to 12 years of imprisonment.

Drug sentences a moneymaker

Drug laws were stiffened in 2006 under the previous government's “zero-sum tolerance policy,” which turned into an additional source of moneymaking for the government. According to the Britain-based research center, Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Program, the following year drug-related fines generated $11.3 million for the state budget.

Given Georgia's geographic location, where drug users — including those who use weed for recreational purposes — are targets of witch hunts, Japaridze says marijuana legalization can be a game-changer.

“We did a comparative analysis, comparing [the U.S. state of] Colorado and Georgia. Having calculated the economic impact of legalization, we anticipate it can create approximately a $4 billion economy, with 7 to 8 percent of annual growth,” he said.

Meanwhile, Georgia's ministry of internal affairs says it has launched an investigation on the “illegal planting” of cannabis. No officer has paid a visit to Girchi's office, no activist has been interrogated yet, but Japaridze says he is ready to face sentencing.