TBILISI -- Georgian marijuana activists are hoping a controversial bill to allow cannabis to be cultivated and sold for export could lead to the full legalization of the drug within the country.
A draft law proposed by the ruling Georgia Dream party was introduced in the South Caucasian country's parliament this week that would allow the growth of marijuana for the express purpose of exporting it for pharmaceutical and cosmetic use.
The bill led to fierce debate, with the opposition calling the plan hypocritical, considering that the sale and purchase of marijuana is still illegal in Georgia -- though consuming it was decriminalized after the Constitutional Court ruled in November that punishing pot users violated the constitution.
"[The government] wants to produce it while punishing others for [using] it? This is absurd," said Giga Bokeria, a leading parliament deputy of the European Georgia Party.
Bokeria urged the government to legalize marijuana "for everyone" and argued that regulating the growth of cannabis was sensible but the government should not have a monopoly on the sale of the drug, OC Media reported on September 11.
"I am an ordinary law-abiding citizen and Georgian laws do not yet give me an opportunity to open full-fledged coffeeshops [selling marijuana], but I hope that after some time we will reach a level where a person can come here...after work and rest…every day I wait for the moment when I can make money in full force," Rati Tsereteli, the owner of a drug-paraphernalia shop in Tbilisi, told Current Time TV, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Tsereteli thinks a law allowing marijuana to be exported will be an agricultural boon to Georgia. "If the state legitimizes such a business and allows hemp to be exported, I am sure that many people will return to the deserted villages," he said.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said the draft law on the export of cannabis was "a very responsible decision" and would "be regulated in the strictest manner."
He added that the government would "borrow the successful practice of a number of countries." Israel and Canada were cited as examples that have created a profitable system of exporting marijuana.
"The whole world is trying to diversify agriculture, and in many developed economies you can see that the cultivation of marijuana is close to the top of the agenda, especially for medicinal use," Nino Zambakhidze, CEO of the Georgia Farmers Association, told the think tank Emerging Europe. "I think this initiative will be very supportive to the Georgian economy but...we have to set very tough regulations because producing marijuana for consumption is not the aim of this project."
But conservative groups and the influential Georgian Orthodox Church have voiced strong opposition.
"It's a big mistake -- maybe the authorities think about the [country's] budget in this way, but they do not think about national security at all," said Iacob Iakobashvili, a Georgian Orthodox bishop at the Bodbe Monastery. "None of our law enforcement agencies enjoys such confidence that they can be safely entrusted with the protection of these [marijuana] plantations -- we risk becoming another Afghanistan or Colombia."
WATCH: Georgian Orthodox clerics lead a protest march against the country's decriminalization and possible export of marijuana on September 16.
The Constitutional Court also ruled that certain restrictions could be placed on marijuana usage, such as not allowing it in public, or in the presence of children, or to ban people of certain professions from using it.
Georgia has very strict penalties for drug use, with possession for many drugs leading to prison sentences of between eight and 20 years. About one-third of all Georgian prison inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses, according to OC Media.
Though lawmakers have pledged to correct the country's incomplete, loophole-filled drug laws, thus far they have only offered the new bill on growing and exporting marijuana.
Only a handful of countries -- including the Netherlands, Spain, Uruguay, and several U.S. states -- have fully legalized marijuana to be grown, sold, and used for personal use. More than two dozen have, like Georgia, decriminalized it so that it can be used but not grown or sold.