Until recently, anyone caught with cannabis twice in 12 months in Georgia faced up to 14 years behind bars. Today you can carry enough for more than 200 joints, after the constitutional court in effect decriminalised possession of the drug.
The landmark ruling follows the case of 27-year-old Beka Tsikarishvili, who was arrested in 2013 with 65 grams of cannabis, which he said was for his own use. Facing a long sentence, he argued imprisonment was unlawful because it infringed his human dignity.
Surprisingly, the judges agreed and in October scrapped the incarceration law for buying, smoking, and carrying small amounts of marijuana, calling the law itself “unconstitutional.”
While possession of drugs with intent to sell still comes with a heavy penalty, the court declared that people who had previously been locked up for smoking marijuana could not be arrested again for using the drug. Activists say that more than 100 people imprisoned for possession have had their sentences commuted.
Most of the cannabis smoked in the country is homegrown and those who grow it still face lengthy sentences, but a court will proceedings to decide if these punishments are also too harsh. A final verdict is expected to take at least two months.
“Public pressure was a major factor behind the court’s ruling,” said David Subeliani, the leader of White Noise, a regional group campaigning for the decriminalisation of all narcotics.
He is optimistic about the relaxation of the penalty for growing cannabis and hopes prison as a punishment will be declared unconstitutional.
White Noise estimates that the authorities’ zero tolerance to drugs has seen more than 300,000 people – almost 10% of Georgia’s 3.7 million population – forced to take urine tests over the past seven years. In 2015, 56-year-old Levan Abzianidize died after officers allegedly made him take diuretic pills for a test, fuelling violent protests in the capital, Tbilisi.
Despite the apparent decriminalisation, people still face a fine of 500 lari (£150) if they are found with THC – the active chemical in cannabis –in their urine. Subeliani said fewer forced urine tests had been carried out since the court ruling.
On New Year’s Eve 2016 police officers visited the offices of Georgia’s liberal party, the New Centre – Girchi, after its members potted 84 cannabis seeds as part of their campaign to decriminalise drugs and legalise weed. Officers confiscated the plants but party’s leader, Zurad Japaridze, and his colleagues are yet to be charged with a criminal offence.
Japaridze argues that smoking cannabis is not only a human right, it’s also an answer to his homeland’s financial woes – in the final quarter of 2016 the economy grew by just 2.3%. Using the US state of Colorado, which legalised cannabis in 2014, as a model Girchi claims legalisation could raise $1.6bn in GDP (10% of Georgia’s budget) and $63m through tourism and taxing growers.
“We have some other economic reforms but they will only bring change in four, five, 10 years. Marijuana reform is the only thing we can do now in 2017… I definitely imagine a number of weed cafes in Tbilisi,” said Japaridze.
The politician also holds up Portugal as an example of how legalising drugs can help improve public health. “Half the number of people there are now dying from heroin overdoses since the country decriminalised all drugs in 2001,” he said. “Diseases passed by intravenous drug users have also dropped dramatically. ”
Despite the court ruling Girchi still faces stiff opposition, not only from the ruling centre-left Georgian Dream coalition, which vehemently contests liberal ideas, but also the Orthodox church.
“This is an issue of principle, and we are obliged to realise its deplorable consequences,” said Irakli Garibashvili, who recently resigned as prime minister. “I am personally, completely, categorically against it.”
Though the moves to decriminalise cannabis have been welcomed by cannabis smokers, legalisation campaigners and liberal politicians, deep-rooted conservatism in the country means the “Amsterdam of the former Soviet Union” title may be further away than some hope.