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Suicide Sparks Renewed Efforts To Decriminalize Drug Use In Georgia

A man attends a rally in support of the legalization of marijuana in Tbilisi. (file photo)

A poignant suicide note written by a 22-year-old man alleging that local police tried to force him to inform on people growing marijuana in his village is spurring Georgians to take a new look at the country's harsh drug laws ahead of parliamentary elections.

Demur Sturua wrote that it pained him terribly to abandon his mother, but that he could no longer stand being intimidated and beaten by one of the police officers in his western village of Dapnari. He then hanged himself at home.

The August 8 suicide has generated shock in this small Caucasus country, where many see it as evidence of abuse of police power despite largely successful efforts in recent years to clean up law enforcement. But some see Sturua's death as due to something else: strict laws that encourage police to pursue suspected drug users even over relatively soft drugs.

Anger over the suicide has quickly turned political, with parliamentary elections due on October 8. Georgia's leading opposition party, the Free Democrats, has promised to decriminalize all drug use in the country if it comes to power. Headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, the party said on August 16 it believes responsibility for Sturua's death "rests on the law-enforcement bodies as well as the government, which has had an incorrect drug policy over the last decades."

It is calling for a drug policy based on “human rights and social health principles” that would exempt users from prosecution and offer them treatment, while creating tougher punishments for drug dealing. It did not say what those punishments should be.

The opposition party's statement puts Georgia's drug laws at the center of campaigning that normally focuses on issues such as political corruption and economic troubles. It also looks set to renew debate over how willing governments in Tbilisi are to fully adopt more Western-leaning values as the country seeks to move closer to the European Union after signing an Association Agreement in June 2014.

Activists say that Georgia, which is often seen as an island of openness in the post-Soviet space, remains highly restrictive when it comes to drug laws. Under Georgian law, possession of more than a minute amount of any drug -- soft or hard -- is punishable by prison, with little distinction made between users and sellers. They say that worsens Georgia’s drug problems by frightening users into trying to constantly stay ahead of the list of outlawed narcotics by turning to new, unlisted, synthetic drugs that may be even more dangerous -- only complicating efforts to convince users to admit addiction and seek treatment.

Paata Sabelashvili: "You can be taken at any moment." (file photo)
Paata Sabelashvili: "You can be taken at any moment." (file photo)

"Out of 207 controlled substances, 147 do not [allow for] small amounts for personal use, which means possessing any amount, even microscopic amounts, is enough to go to jail for five to eight years," says Paata Sabelashvili, head of the White Noise activist group in Tbilisi that is seeking to change Georgia's drug laws.

Sabelashvili, who is also a public health expert, says that under current laws possession of just 5 grams of marijuana is enough to go to prison. The strict regulations also allow police officers to pull citizens off the streets and into police stations for urine tests if they have reasonable suspicion the person may be under the influence of drugs.

"You can be taken at any moment, from any place -- from a cafe, from the street -- for urine testing," Sabelashvili says. "Up to 60,000 people from a population of 3.7 million have been taken for urine testing per year."

Activists also say that the fear such draconian laws inspire also opens the way for police to intimidate people into becoming informants, as Sturua's suicide notes alleged happened to him. They say the information obtained then makes it easier for police to carry out drug raids and boost their record for successful investigations.

Georgia's strict laws are a legacy of measures passed in 2006 when President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is largely credited with cleaning up corrupt police practices such as bribe-taking, was at the height of his power. He set a zero-tolerance policy for drugs, including seven- to 14-year prison sentences for possession.

When Saakashvili and his United National Movement party were defeated in elections in 2012 after a decade in power, the incoming ruling Georgia Dream coalition softened the punishments but otherwise kept the zero-tolerance policies in place.

Today, prison sentences for possession are from five to eight years, but defendants are allowed to plead guilty in exchange for suspended sentences and stiff fines that Sabelashvili says commonly total 20,000 to 30,000 laris ($8,500 to $12,800 dollars).

That leaves Georgia with drug laws more like those of other post-Soviet republics than those of the EU. While all countries in Europe specify possession of drugs for personal use as an offense, punishment for small amounts is commonly a fine equivalent to a few hundred dollars.

But in Russia and most other post-Soviet nations, even where drug laws have officially been eased in recent years, possession is still likely to end with imprisonment.

In Georgia, activists have stage street demonstrations to call for the decriminalization of drug use. Protest leaders have called on authorities to "stop jailing people for smoking weed" and said they are not advertising marijuana but protecting the personal freedom of those who smoke it.

But public opinion over how much to liberalize Georgia's drug laws is divided. No formal polls exist, but informal polls, including recent interviews with passersby on a busy Tbilisi street this week, reveal some of the differences in views.

Asked whether people should be punished for using light drugs, one woman told RFE/RL: "By all means, because [otherwise] he will pull in others."

Others favor punishment but not prison sentences.

"Maybe a fine or something like that," said one young man.

Another woman said she preferred to see drug users get treatment rather than jail time. "These people are ill," she said. "What will you achieve by putting them in prison? Will they give up drugs?"

Activist Beka Tsikarishvili
Activist Beka Tsikarishvili

Several draft laws have been submitted to the Georgian parliament over the last four years aimed at softening the drug policy, but all of them have been rejected. However, prospects for doing so may have improved following a decision by the Constitutional Court last year in response to an activist who was detained in 2014 for possession of 70 grams of marijuana.

The activist, Beka Tsikarishvili, challenged imprisonment for drug possession as inhumane. The Constitutional Court agreed, ruling that prison was too harsh for 70 grams of marijuana when there was no documented intent to sell. That leaves legislators with the task of now rewriting the national drug law to bring it into line with the court's decision once a new parliament is elected in October,

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents in Tbilisi Giorgi Gvakharia, Eka Kevanishvili, and Thea Topuria contributed to this report