Drug Policy in Georgia: Ignored until the Next Election?

Drug Policy in Georgia: Ignored until the Next Election?

Before 2012, elections had little effect on drug policy, but when Misha Saakashvili’s regime and the United National Movement (UNM) was defeated in those parliamentary elections things changed.

Since then, talk about easing up on punishments for drug-related crimes has been buzzing throughout Georgian politics. Under the previous regime, severe drag laws were introduced and thousands of citizens were put behind bars for possession of less than one gram of marihuana or 1/1000 gram of heroin; the sentence for drug use was harsher than that for than rape, armed burglary, or illegal possession of radioactive materials. Perhaps ironically, it was the UNM party that recently initiated the discussion about reforming these laws.    

In 2008, a childhood friend of mine was working for the Special Police. I asked him what the reason was for these insanely strict laws and the answer was tragic: if a “suspect” (someone from the political opposition who the police wanted to silence) was arrested for gun possession (or arrested and then had a gun planted on them), they only had to face for years in prison for illegal gun possession. This rarely encouraged them to confess to their “crimes.” If however, the police could threaten them with 20 years in prison for 1/10 gram of heroin, the suspects often relented quickly. Since then, the courts have stopped sentencing people to jail for small amounts of drugs – the constitutional court recently stated that up to 70 grams of marijuana could be treated as for “self-consumption” – and both major parties have begun to discuss liberalizing drug laws.

However, public attitudes towards the legalization of both hard and soft drugs remain negative, and haven’t changed since 2003, when GORBI first asked a representative sample of Georgians about this issue. In September 2016, we conducted a pre-election survey for Imedi TV and one of the topics we covered was drugs.  

In general, a large majority of adult Georgians are against drug legalization of any kind. People tend to be less conservative towards drugs such as marijuana compared to heroin, with 20% rejecting legalization vs. only 5% supporting the legalization of heroin. An overwhelming majority (90%) of surveyed respondents agree that hard drugs should be illegal and punishable for use, but a smaller majority of Georgians (60%) think the same way about soft drugs.

Support for the legalization of soft drugs varies across demographic groups. Male participant support for legalization was 10% higher than with female respondents. Not surprisingly, younger respondents tend to support legalization more than elderly citizens (31% vs. 10%), and university diploma holders are significantly more liberal compared to those who spent up to 12 years in school. And finally, affluent Georgians with a family income of 2000 GEL and higher are three times more likely to be pro-legalization than those with a family income below 500 Gel, 46% and 15% respectively.  

Elections are over, and like I predicted in the previous column the Georgian Dream won by a big margin. Now, it is likely that the fight to change our draconian drug laws will only be continued by a small segment of civil society. The concept of legalization is widely unpopular among the general public and I don’t believe that in the near future either the EU or USA would sponsor an educational campaign to civilize the situation on the ground. However, life in Georgia is not quite helpless in this regards – as I mentioned before, the courts are not sending people to prison for smoking grass. But I warn the younger generations to be careful anyways. As my generation listened to Voice of America in secret, you should make sure that the authorities don’t catch you.

GORBI is a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients. Since 2003, GORBI remains an exclusive member of Gallup International research network for its two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as Mongolia and Iraq. This data was provided exclusively to the Financial.