Georgia has become the first former Soviet state to legalize the consumption of marijuana. But travelers looking for an ex-communist Amsterdam shouldn't head there just yet, as a haze still surrounds many of the technicalities of drug use.
The Georgian Constitutional Court’s July 30 decision to drop punishment for the personal use of cannabis was indeed unprecedented for the ex-Soviet world, a region better known for its punitive anti-drug policies. But while Georgians can now legally smoke or otherwise consume marijuana, they still can’t legally buy it. The purchase and possession of cannabis remains illegal, as the court ruling relates specifically to personal consumption.
“If you have a joint and the police want to pat you down, light the joint up immediately and you will be good,” one lawyer explained, only half-jokingly, in social media posts.
To resolve that conundrum, the Georgian parliament needs to pass new legislation. “If the state does not punish people for consuming a certain substance, then the parliament needs to address the question of how people can obtain that substance,” Guram Imnadze, a lawyer with the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, said in an op-ed for Netgazeti.
In addition, while the Constitutional Court decision that consuming marijuana is a matter of personal freedom, the ruling also specifies that marijuana consumption must be subject to restrictions similar to those associated with alcohol and tobacco, to limit the impact on third parties and minors. This, too, is something that the parliament will have to address.
But lawmakers are facing an electorate that is largely hostile to the idea of legalization. In a newly released poll, 74 percent of respondents opposed the idea of marijuana legalization. Georgia’s widely revered Orthodox Church has condemned the decision and even called for dissolving the court that rendered it.
“The Constitutional Court should be abolished,” Andria Jamghaidze, a senior church hierarch, told media. “Four men make decisions [at the Constitutional Court] and they have a mandate to go against the entire nation’s will.” Other clerics also weighed in and echoed the sentiment.
The ruling Georgian Dream party dismissed the idea. “The Constitutional Court is the main enforcer of constitutional law in the country, and the country can’t function without it,” party member Tamar Chugoshvili said.
Other Georgian Dream members’ comments suggest, though, that the ruling party will try striking a balance between honoring the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the one hand and the will of the church and conservative voters on the other by putting in place stringent restrictions.
So don't start rolling your joints just yet.
But there is a strong civilian effort in Georgia to liberalize anti-drug laws that many human right activists regard as harsh and counterproductive for containing drug abuse, and it appears to be gaining momentum.
The legalization activists who brought the case to court celebrated victory. “This was not a fight for cannabis, this was a fight for freedom,” said Zurab Japaridze, head of the libertarian political party Girchi and a co-applicant in the pot case.
This is Girchi's second marijuana-related Constitutional Court victory. Last year, the court ruled that criminal prosecution for personal use (as defined by the amount possessed) of marijuana was in contravention of the Constitution. But until this more recent decision, the consumption of marijuana remained a civil offense, punishable by a fine.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.