Marijuana users in the former Soviet republic of Georgia face a year in prison and stiff fines if they are caught with more than two grams of the drug. They also could be sentenced to up to three months of community service.
Those strict measures became law in 2006 when President Mikheil Saakashvili was at the height of his power. But Georgia's new ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is considering taking a softer approach. New legislation is expected to be introduced in the country’s parliament later this month.
Georgian Labor, Health, and Social Affairs Minister David Sergeyenko said last week that "ban-related" drug policies often have a "ricochet effect" that strengthens the development of illicit drug-trafficking channels.
Sergeyenko said dealing with drugs effectively requires a well-considered strategy – and that decriminalization of marijuana could be part of the strategy.
Likewise, lawmaker Koba Davitashvili, a member of Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgia Dream coalition, has proposed that prison sentences for marijuana users be replaced with stiff fines.
Davit Otiashvili, a Tbilisi doctor who specializes in the treatment of drug addicts, says decriminalization is probably inevitable.
"I think that at some point this process will become the international norm," he says, "and at some point, Georgia will have to comply with this trend."
Davit Otiashvili of Alternative Georgia: "Georgia will have to comply..."
Otviashvili, who heads Alternative Georgia, a nongovernmental addiction research center, predicts a bill will be submitted to a parliamentary subcommittee by the end of May calling for prison sentences in marijuana cases to be removed from the penal code.
But he adds that any changes to the existing drug laws should ultimately be aimed at reducing the number of overall drug users. Decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana, he says, should be done in conjunction with efforts to bolster Georgia's drug treatment and rehabilitation programs.
"For many years the policy in Georgia has been straightforward and unwavering, aimed at repression against people who are involved in the illicit drug trade – buyers and dealers, but also users," Otviashvili says.
"This approach has given us two results. Drug users have disappeared from the streets. Part of our society has calmed down because of that and they approve of the current situation. On the other hand, the root problem hasn’t been reduced or disappeared. Thousands of people have been locked up in prisons. They’ve been isolated and those who have not been caught have gone underground."
Using Revenues For Treatment
But even those advocating changes are also urging caution.
Guguli Magradze, head of the parliament’s Health Care Committee, says that while what she calls "the inflexible policies of the past" need to be changed, the "preventive aspect" of the law also needs to be preserved "so people are discouraged from using drugs."
Guguli Magradze: "Preventive aspect" must be preserved
Magradze adds that revenues raised from fining marijuana users "should be directed back toward the treatment of drug addicts."
Likewise, Irakli Gemkrelidze, general director of Tbilisi's Center for Mental Health and Prevention of Drug Addiction, warns that any amendments to the current legislation shouldn’t send the wrong signal to users.
"It’s correct to think that the use of marijuana should not be a criminal offense," Gemkrelidze says. "But we should not encourage the use of marijuana or regard it as something that is completely harmless."
Some of Georgia’s citizens don't want to see the country's drug laws relaxed.
One Tbilisi woman with a country home in the western Imereti region told an RFE/RL call-in program that the government should leave the drug laws alone.
"Even though they are considering [the decriminalization of] marijuana, I think there should be strict rules," she said. "You can imagine that in the mountain villages of Imereti they grow plenty of this plant. For the past two years, when I go to my village in the summer, they were afraid [of the tough laws] and couldn’t smoke. If they are allowed to do it, I warn you that every man in Imereti will be smoking."
Written by Ron Synovitz based on reporting by Okropir Rukhadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service; Luka Kalandarishvili, an intern with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, also contributed to this report