Early this month, European Students For Liberty (ESFL) leaders in Georgia helped organize a rally in Tbilisi to promote marijuana decriminalization. Hundreds of young Georgians showed up in support. The protesters chanted “Do not arrest!” Some carried signs with messages like “End the drug war!” and “Pot is not a crime!” The now-annual protest brought together youth, politicians, journalists, non-governmental organizations, student groups and others in major Georgian cities including Tbilisi, Batumi, Zugdidi and Bolnisi. ESFL leader Mariam Gogolishvili summed up the aims of the rally:
“We demand the government to make a change to legislation from which citizens will not bear criminal responsibility as a result of using cannabis or any products derived from it.”
Under Georgian law, the use or possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use is punishable with an administrative fine. Repeated possession as well as the preparation, production, purchase, transportation, and sale of marijuana are all criminal offenses punishable with jail time. Thankfully, many young people in Georgia — like young people everywhere — have realized that criminalization is not the answer when it comes to managing drug use.
No matter the country, the evidence is clear: treating addiction as a medical issue and drug use as a personal choice leads to less violence, greater autonomy for individuals, and better results for addicts looking to get clean. In 2008, Georgia spent nearly 18 million GEL ($8 million USD) to implement the portion of the criminal code which established street-based drug testing. And for what? In this study, the authors point out that this is a ”dramatically wasteful” policy which has little effect on the drug-use habits of Georgians.
Sadly, this is a familiar story around the world. Most of us know our government’s approach to drugs is inefficient and uninformed. As SFL has expanded internationally, it has only become more clear how one state’s drug policies support and influence the approach taken in other states. The drug war is a truly international phenomenon, and drawing it down will take the effort of young people in every country touched by this destructive global regime.
Progress is being made in Georgia today. Before the rally, a Georgian MP, Goga Khachidze, initiated a bill, which, if approved, will decriminalize possession and use of marijuana, but will leave it as an administrative offense. The bill will go to committee in the next few weeks and pro-decriminalization activists are busy making their case to legislators.
The conservative majority party, known as the “Georgian Dream coalition” remains categorically opposed to decriminalization and has been trying to avoid discussion with supporters. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili cites paternalist concerns: “We must discuss how to create a better, happier and a stronger future for our youth. We must care about their way of life.” Many political leaders hold such misguided approaches to the issue of drug use, thinking that punishment discourages addicts and that this will keep people safe. Mariam and the pro-decriminalization advocates have a different concern:
“We don’t want the existence of such a drug legislation which does not respond to the challenges of modern civilization and is inhuman. Once again we ask the government to stop persecuting people because of marijuana use”.
And this is where ESFL is making a major difference. In addition to helping organize rallies, ESFL leaders are making a point of talking to the media about the issues involved and have hosted a number of smaller events aimed at education and discussion. Here are a few videos of Mariam addressing the media.
For those who don’t speak Georgian, the first video is focused on ESFL’s activities and how to get involved. In the second, Miriam explains the importance of the international approach and how ESFL serves as a platform for organizing across national borders. ESFL also hosted a number of lectures, debates, and even a Liberty Picnic to spread the word about marijuana decriminalization and to combat stereotypes and myths about drug use and effective management.
The drug war will not end tomorrow — in Georgia, or anywhere — but it may be over sooner than we think, thanks to the hard work of activists around the world. We hope next year’s rally will be even bigger and commend Mariam and her colleagues for the work they’re doing to educate and advocate on what has become a defining issue of our generation.