It is now legal to smoke marijuana in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, but there's a caveat.
At 4:20 p.m. local time on Monday, July 30, the Georgian Constitutional Court legalized marijuana consumption while retaining laws against growing, storing and selling the drug.
In the historic ruling that subverted decades of harshly restrictive drug policies, Georgia’s increasingly liberal constitutional court declared smoking cannabis an act "guaranteed by the right of free self-development,” making it the first former Soviet republic to legalize recreational usage.
For years, the southern Caucasus nation of roughly 3.7 million was home to what many civil activists called a repressive regime of narco-politics, where even casual users faced up to 14 years in prison.
Longtime critics of Georgia's hardline drug policies said that the laws were being exploited to justify heavy-handed policing tactics within the country's thriving nightlife scene.
The court said punishing an individual for consuming cannabis would comply with the constitution only if consumption put a third party at risk. The decision was prompted by a lawsuit filed by activists of the libertarian Girchi party.
In a nation with proclaimed Euro-Atlantic aspirations but historically torn between Russia and the West, Girchi supporters called it a victory for liberal values.
"This wasn't a fight for cannabis. This was a fight for freedom," former lawmaker Zurab Japaridze said of the case, which was titled Zurab Japaridze and Vakhtang Megrelishvili VS. the Parliament of Georgia.
Japaridze is the 42-year-old Girchi party founder who once planted marijuana seeds in a televised New Year's Eve event in 2016. Japaridze described the ruling as a "big victory" that was years in the making.
“It is a liberal understanding of the idea of freedom, when a person is free in his/her actions, given it does not pose a risk to others," Japaridze told Voice of America's Georgian service. “Nobody can send you to prison or fine you for smoking cannabis.”
Other advocates for liberalized drug policies, such as Akaki Zoidze, chair of Georgia’s parliamentary health care committee, said the ruling goes a step too far.
“Marijuana consumption should be allowed only for medical purposes," he said at a press conference that followed the ruling. "Our aim was not to make marijuana accessible for everyone, but to reduce the number of drug addicts.”
Leaders of Georgia's Orthodox Church roundly condemned the ruling as a “traitorous decision.”
“The four judges are making disastrous decisions ignoring the will of 4 million people," said Archbishop Andria. "That court needs to be abolished.”
The Orthodox Church, which has favored far-right causes and marched against LGBTQ activists in the past, enjoys the highest favorability rating among public institutions, boasting a trustworthiness rating of 76 percent - roughly twice the approval rating of the president's office and the police - according to a May 2018 poll commissioned by Transparency International Georgia.
That same survey, conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, surveyed the attitudes on drug-related issues, finding that 72 percent of respondents said there should be no sentence for using light drugs. Fifty-six percent of respondents said they felt the same way about club drugs such as ecstasy, while 43 percent thought intravenous drug users should not be imprisoned for shooting up.
Forty-five percent of respondents agreed that law enforcement agencies employed the method of planting drugs for detaining targeted individuals.
A lengthy civic discourse
Georgia's discussion on drug policy liberalization has spanned years, with a draft law including development of rehabilitation programs for drug abusers introduced in parliament just last year.
According to the analysis of drug-related criminal statistics conducted by the Tbilisi-based Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), the “Practice and declared goals do not match.”
Although principal goals of the national strategy for battling drug abuse do not envisage punishing drug users, the report said statistical data indicates drug users were being harshly punished anyway.
“While tens of thousands of people were fined for drug use, according to the statistics provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in 2016 only 10 people were arrested for distributing drugs, and only 36 people – in 2017," says the IDFI report. "Such a vast difference in numbers of people arrested for drug use and drug distribution raises questions regarding the priorities of the drug policy of the country.”
Japaridze, who has campaigned for the easing of drug laws, says the court decision is a turning point, not the final destination.
“From the libertarian standpoint, we think the same rule shall apply to other drugs, we believe it shall be up to an individual to decide what to consume," he said. "Even if that action is harmful for his own health, the decision is a person’s and shall not belong to a policeman.”
Some say Japaridze’s efforts mask other political intentions, pointing out that he was among the first to announce his run for Georgia’s last directly-elected presidential office.
However, his advocacy for broader drug liberalization and anti-mandatory military service campaigns tend to elicit him more “cursing than popularity,” he said.
His constituency of predominantly 18-29-year-old citizens, who comprise about 20 percent of Georgia’s electorate, are typically inactive voters.
Given Georgia’s geographic location, where even recreational drug users are socially stigmatized, Japaridze says marijuana legalization can be a game-changer.
“We did an 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 7-8 percent of annual growth,” Japaridze told VOA in 2017.
In May, thousands rallied for several days in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to protest allegedly heavy-handed police raids in two popular nightclubs where eight suspected drug dealers were arrested.
(This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service)