We all know about Uruguay, right? First country to legalize recreational cannabis. We also all know about Canada, and the growing number of US states that allow legal smoking. Some of us are even aware that Mexico too is a recently legalized country. But who knew about Georgia?
As a former Eastern Bloc country, Georgia sits to the east of the Black sea, bordered on the south by Turkey and Armenia, on the east by Azerbaijan, and by Russia in the north. Population estimates from about six years ago put the population at approximately 5.9 million, with a life expectancy of around 75 years. Georgia has been a republic since 1936 when it separated from the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic with Armenia and Azerbaijan, while still a part of the USSR. In 1991 Georgia proclaimed its overall independence, although this was certainly not a cut and dry experience, leading instead to years of discord between Russia and Georgia.
Georgia is considered a developing country. It’s a member of the UN and the Council of Europe. It is not a part of the EU, and not subject to EU laws and mandates, nor is it currently a candidate for EU membership. Georgia actually contains two regions that are independent – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – however these areas are generally considered to be a part of Georgia under Russian occupation to most of the rest of the world. Georgia faced incredible economic fallout with the dissolution of the USSR, and has only recently been showing a strengthened and growing economy, can cannabis help contribute to this?
Georgia and cannabis
There are certain locations that stand out when it comes to cannabis, mainly for their wonky, disconnected sets of laws – and Georgia is one of those places. As a smaller country which doesn’t get as much press attention, it tends to go under the radar.
Up until laws changed in 2018, Georgia had very strict drug policies, with users often being jailed for up to 14 years. Georgia was also very big on forcible drug testing, with civilian activist group White Noise Movement claiming an average of 112 people were forcibly tested every day, costing millions of dollars over the years. Forced drug screenings were one of the three platforms that proponents of change focused on, along with the decriminalization of smaller amounts of drugs, and to make dosage calculations by law. Georgia was essentially using very strict, zero-tolerance, drug measures to collect fines, bringing in $11.3 million in one year alone.
One of the reasons the issue of cannabis came up was in the context of the 2018 elections (often a time for new legislative measures to be introduced). When parliament began drafting the law, it was primarily to allow government licensed companies in Georgia to grow cannabis for export, thus entering into the global cannabis markets. According to Akaki Zoidze, chairman for parliament’s committee on health care, “If we tap 10 percent of that market, we could be looking at a billion dollars of [annual] income for the economy.” As of right now, this aspect is still uncertain.
All of this changed in July of 2018 when Georgia’s constitutional court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to punish a person for using cannabis since it poses no threat to anyone else, and punishing use is restrictive of personal freedoms. In fact, the court stated that unless a third party is being affected, or the laws of use are broken, there will be no punishment for using cannabis at all.
This, however, did nothing to change cultivation and supply laws, which are still punishable offenses. The ruling is interesting partly because of its subjectiveness. While Georgia ruled that it doesn’t hurt others, a country like Germany has taken the opposite stance, continuing its illegalization by referring to it as a self-harm measure. These are two very different and distinct ways of looking at the same thing.
This ruling was actually not the first to chip away at the previously harsh Georgian drug laws. A year prior to this ruling, the same court ruled to decriminalize marijuana use, calling it a non-judicial affair.
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So, here’s a basic recap… In Georgia it’s now perfectly legal to have and use cannabis. It is perfectly illegal to grow that cannabis, to buy it, or to sell it. It seems cultivation on a government level might be legalized, but there isn’t a regulated system to govern it yet. Much like Washington DC, the laws create a bit of a conundrum, although DC doesn’t actually ban personal cultivation, leaving at least a small window for people to legally obtain their cannabis.
As of right now in Georgia, while it might be legal to have and use, there is no actual legal way of obtaining it, creating, essentially, a reverse loophole. What this also means is that while Georgia is now technically a legalized country (sort of), there is no structured or regulated market to speak of, and no law to support one right now. As of right now, the new legalization is most applicable to citizens with little to no information released about exportation.
What punishments are there?
As mentioned, having and using cannabis are now legal in Georgia, but where it is done makes a difference. A person cannot smoke in any public place whether it be a bus, a café, a park, a school, or a workplace. If caught smoking in a public place, the fine is for 800-1,200 lari (approximately $300-450).
The age of consent for using marijuana in Georgia is 21 years of age, and those found using or possessing below that age are subject to a fine of 500-1,500 lari (approximately $190-560). If a person over 21 years of age encourages cannabis use in someone under 21 years of age, they can be subject to a prison sentence of 6-10 years. Plus, simply being under the influence of cannabis while around minors can incur a fine of 1,000-1,500 lari (approximately $375-560).
Not only is it illegal to use cannabis in a workplace since it’s a public place, using in a workplace is considered a separate violation in and of itself. Regardless of the kind of work, whether its public or private sector, and whether other people are around or not, being caught using during work can incur a fine of up to 1,500 lari (approximately $560). With some professions its considered even more dangerous – like doctors – and not only can a user incur a fine, but they’re also subject to losing whatever license they have to practice their vocation.
Anyone caught driving while under the influence is subject to criminal prosecution, and will likely pay a fine or serve a year in prison. If a driver under the influence injures another party, the sentence will be significantly steeper.
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The promotion and advertising of cannabis are also illegal, and those caught marketing products can pay between 5,000-10,000 lari (approximately $1,800-3,700).
While simple possession is no longer illegal, acquisition, storage, and transport are illegal in excess of 70 grams. No jail time is served for the acquisition of up to 70 grams (dried flower), or 100 grams (fresh flower).
A final word on cultivation and the reverse loophole: while personal cultivation is still illegal, there is a little gray area that allows a person to obtain cannabis. According to the law, a person can cultivate up to 151 grams without threat of a prison sentence, but not without any penalty. What this means is that while a person won’t be sent to jail, they will suffer some sort of punishment, even if that punishment is not standardized. In this way there is a bit of leeway, but cultivation still remains illegal.
One could certainly ask the question ‘why legalize a substance if obtaining that substance is still illegal?’ and it’s a very sound point. By Georgian law it’s permissible to smoke, but not permissible to obtain the smokable product. This means that if Georgians want to practice their now constitutionally backed right to smoke marijuana, they have to break the law to do so.
Perhaps this law is simply the beginning and in the next few years some of this mess will be cleaned up. As confusing, and backwards as it is, it’s also a breakthrough that should not be discounted, as Georgia is, after all, the very first former Eastern Bloc country to take such a liberal stance with cannabis. In the fight to legalize, laws are not always passed in the most sensical ways, and it often takes time to iron out the creases. It will be interesting to see where Georgia stands in another couple years from now.
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