Because I Got High

Because I Got High

I was gonna to write about funny tenders until I got high

I was planning to write about how procurement processes at some international organizations in countries were GORBI works have deteriorated over the last 15 years. The reason for postponing can be summed up in the lyrics of a Joseph Forman’s song “Because I got High.” This week, the Georgian Constitutional Court ruled to abolish punishment for cannabis use and possession of up to two ounces. Now that dope is legal, many questions come to mind that were previously only theoretical. How should we live with this new reality? Is this really such a big achievement, especially in terms of human rights? What and how will Georgia gain and lose form this? Will Georgia's growing numbers of tourists soon start smelling skunk on every street corner like in parts of Washington, DC or will new “cafés” spout up akin to Amsterdam?

Two things are clear for me: one - those who used cannabis for recreational means will find life much easier, since those who smoke will no longer feel as if they are being treated like criminals and the substance will become cheaper and easier to purchase. And two – the state is facing unprecedented challenges as how to put everything under new rules and legislation, which by no means will be an easy task.

In Georgia, the public in general has long been against the legalization of soft drugs. This is not news to me, having measured drug related issues over the last two decades and to read several hundreds of articles and studies conducted across the globe. Stigma and lack of knowledge is what will likely set back the process over the next year or so. I have personally experienced the former, when in 1991 I was attending a presentation in York, UK about perceptions of drugs among different EU countries. A professor who presented very informative data on what degree and why people were so skeptical about cannabis use and legalization, had lit up a joint when we had a beer after the conference. When he saw the strange look in my eyes he said, “Merab, I was presenting the population’s views, not my own.” Twenty-seven years have passed and people’s attitudes and government approaches towards the issue has evolved. It was Israel in 1992 that first legalized cannabis for medical use and research. In the United States, according to various polls today over 50% of the general public favors legalization of medical marijuana and many states have already legalized it, some even for recreational use. Uruguay was the first country to fully legalize marijuana, and the process has started in the EU and the UK.

In Georgia, possession and use of cannabis, or as we call it “plani” was until recently a crime severally punishable under law. During Soviet times and until 2004, anyone caught by the police ended up paying bribes of up $1,500, though it varied based on the city and mainly on the user’s financial ability. However, very few ended up in correctional institutions. Later, under Mr. Saakashvili government, a draconian law was introduced and thousands of citizens who were caught with as little as a joint were given prison sentences ranging from six years to life. After the regime change in 2012, the state stopped prosecuting drug users, including hard ones, but mostly because of civil society efforts, the process of decimalization started and at the same time all stakeholders understood that the public in general disapproved the manner in which the state was enforcing the prohibition.

In GORBI’s recent nationwide survey, 61% of respondents thought that the prohibition has failed and only 21% considered to be working out well.

But the same survey revealed that the majority of the general public (61%) was also in disagreement with the 2016 Constitutional Court’s decision that “consuming cannabis is protected by personal autonomy” and only 31% supported the verdict.

In Georgia, like in many societies drug pushers are hated, and the public has little sympathy towards them. 64% of citizens would approve tougher penalties against hard drug dealers.

When it comes to legalization of cannabis, people are very skeptical towards making recreational marijuana legally accessible, though almost half (44%) would support legalization for medical use.

I believe soonest there will be several polls to measure feelings and now it will be much easier to survey dope users, since they will not fear possible spread or information, which previously could have carried serious consequences.

Legalization of possession and use is one thing but establishing an industry that can grow, pack and offer to customers the product in Georgia and make it exportable is quite another. And this creates a set of potential problems. Let me assume that those in charge of drafting new legislations and standards will manage their duties well and we will see the industry growing “silently” and generating income to the budget and not advertising and promoting their products publicly, as the online gambling industry did when they start making big money recently, as the tobacco industry had done several decades back. One of the biggest issues for me is the new feel of cannabis pushers. Very few Georgians, if any, are serving prison sentence for hard drug use and no longer is anyone being incarcerated for dope smoking or possessing of small amounts. However, this situation will dramatically change very soon and here is why: everyone can grow a couple of plants without being prosecuted or even fined.

We are a very poor country and one gram of marijuana (if someone can get it today) would cost around $20, half the price of gold. I envisage the spawning of a segment of marijuana pushers and they will appear everywhere at high schools and universities, tourist areas and in every big neighborhood. Some of them will start growing large amounts to make big money. The prison population will consequently expand since not all will be illegally selling only a few grams. And this may be a normal thing if government can introduce and execute a correct approach and manage commercial dispensaries to regulate the black market.

And this is doable but not that easy as previous successful initiatives were, such as making mandatory seat belt use, not parking in spots reserved for disabled, banning smoking of cigarettes in state buildings and recently in restaurants, paying bills for electricity and not fixing meters and not even thinking about offering a bribe to a police officer. I thought about adding a few more initiatives but to be frank it is hard to recall any other thing that was universally accepted by the public.

What happens next? For the next couple of years, we may have some “manageable chaos” but later things will become normal. Last year, I was having dinner with my GORBI colleagues and my dear friend Polish professor Paweł Swianiewicz. When I mentioned to him that the Court made possession of up to 70 grams legal and we may further legalize it for medical or even recreational use – he was surprised and later he said to my Dutch colleague Rian, “So like in your homeland, you will be going to coffeeshops soon?” Rian responded, yes, when my guests are asking me, I am taking them to coffeeshops. I added that, I believe the same will happen in Georgia, like what I have been doing for many years – taking my clients and foreign friends to Stalin’s museum in Gori at their request.

The Parliament of Georgia will resume its sessions in a month when they are back from holidays and then we will hear about the timing for the new legislation and how lawmakers imagine the future. Meanwhile, many groups will protest the Court’s decision and we may also see some crowds in the streets. However, I am more afraid of the large crowd that will gather in front of the first dispensary to be the first to purchase the substance. Let’s see if this line will be bigger than what appeared in Moscow in 1990 when the first McDonalds was opened.