A wave of drug-related deaths over the past two weeks has reignited the nearly year-long debate on Georgia’s drug policy reform, pitting conservative politicians with activists advocating more liberal drug policy. So far, the government dithers, but is leaning towards the hard line.
In recent weeks, at least five young persons were reported dead, allegedly following use of the so called “recreational drugs”. Most have died at home, after having visited night clubs immediately before passing away in their sleep, according to the relatives and acquaintances who have spoken to the media.
The White Noise movement, one of the most ardent proponents of drug policy liberalization, said in its statement on May 5 that the deaths could have been caused by drugs being “intentionally polluted by unknown substances.”
The organization has pinned the responsibility on the government, which “not only does nothing to change the situation, but also refuses to acknowledge that the situation is alarming.”
Their opponents see things differently. Labor Party’s Shalva Natelashvili and Georgian Troupe’s Jondi Bagaturia – conservatives from the left and right-wing fringe – have blamed the night clubs of the deaths and accused the authorities of providing illicit patronage to these establishments and, by extension, to sale of drugs at these venues.
Georgia’s club scene has been extremely vibrant in the past years and has grown to represent one of Tbilisi’s key tourist attractions, especially among the youth. The managers of electronic music festivals and night clubs were quick to respond to these accusations at a joint press briefing on May 8, describing the politicians’ claims as “slander,” and simultaneously urging the authorities to restrict access to “poisonous substances,” which according to them, are mostly purchased online.
Zviad Gelbakhiani of Tbilisi-based club Bassiani, a leading electronic music venue, told journalists after the press briefing that the government’s drug policy was not effective. “The results that we are facing today, is exactly due to its repressive and punitive measures,” Gelbakhiani added.
The Georgian Network of People Who Use Drugs, a group of seven non-governmental organizations, echoed these views. “The responsibility rests on the government and on those politicians, who went against the reform process with their populist statements and irrational expectations,” the network said yesterday.
Deputy Interior Minister Natia Mezvrishvili signaled the official line on the matter, stressing that “continuous talk” about impending drug policy liberalization “only encourages drug-related crimes, promotes drug use and hinder the crime prevention.”
The Parliament of Georgia is currently reviewing legislative amendments drafted by a group of civil society organizations, which, if approved, would lift criminal liability for use of drugs, as well as for the possession of small amount of drugs. In addition, state agencies will have to carry out measures to reduce health, social and economic impacts of drug use.
The bill was registered in the Parliament in June 2017 as a legislative proposal of five ruling party MPs, but since the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party has failed to agree on a common stance, the discussion on the Parliament floor has been delayed. The Georgian Orthodox Church has played a crucial role when it weighed in on the issue as well, calling for halting the parliamentary discussions.
In an interview with Civil.ge in February, Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia was treading a cautious line. He said “drug use should not lead to criminal cases, but starting this process without having a strong rehabilitation system is very risky.”
It remains to be seen, if the untimely deaths would tilt the balance towards more hard-line stance.