The area outside the Chancellery of the Government of Georgia is typically a concrete desert on a weekday evening, home to a few pigeons and the odd security guard. But on a recent Monday night, the square was crowded with more than 1,000 people, moving in time to music, a cloud of white smoke rising above them.
“What better time and place to have a party!” a young man shouts as he grins and lights up. Behind him, other people jump up and down and hold signs: “Stop sending people to jail for smoking weed. Vol. 2.”
This was the second phase — Volume 2 — of a series of impromptu protest raves that started when 400 people marched along Rustaveli Avenue in the capital city of Tbilisi before stopping amid an outburst of electronic noise outside the city's Old Parliament building. Volume 3 was already being planned.
The protest raves began because of a 27-year-old Georgian NGO worker and musician named Beqa. In June 2013, police stopped him in the middle of the day as he walked to the train station on his way to work. Police found 7 grams of marijuana on him and another 62 grams when they then searched his home. As a result, Beqa is facing a possible prison sentence of seven years.
Random drug searches and long prison sentences for drug possession are common in Georgia.
“A lot of people are in prison for doing drugs,” says Giorgi, a 32-year-old graphic designer standing at the edge of the mass of Rustaveli square dancers. “But this guy Beqa turned out to have a lot of friends — the right kind of friends.”
It was his friends who've staged the protest raves. Raves would seem to be an extremely ineffective strategy for preventing someone from going to prison, but the protests became popular on social media. And in a nation of 4.5 million people, social media can have an outsized effect. “Beqa is not a criminal!” slogans began to spread all over Georgian Facebook pages, and then news websites, and then TV. Similar graffiti and stickers can be found all around the city. On them, Beqa looks a lot like Jesus.
Beqa is now the figurehead of the growing movement for a more liberal drug policy in Georgia. The country inherited its current, extremely invasive policy from the days of Soviet rule; unlike elsewhere in Europe, where police must catch someone in the act of consumption, in Georgia police can stop anyone they wish based only on suspicion.
Eyes red because you were up late studying? Dancing around a public fountain because you're in a good mood? Wearing a beanie hat? Any of that is enough for the police to force you to take a urine test. Police will bust parties and make every single person there pee in a cup.
On average, 137 people are tested for drugs every day in Georgia; only about one-third of the tests are positive. For a first offense, there is a fine of about $300. The average monthly wage in Georgia is about $400.
For a second offense, the punishment is prison for up to one year and a minimum fine of $1,100 — there is no maximum limit to the fine. The government makes more than $10 million from drug-related fines every year.
“The way the government persecutes people who use drugs shows that there is still a lot to do before this country has real freedom,” says Sopho Verdzeuli, a lawyer at the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the same NGO for whom Beqa worked.
Those who are in favor of liberalization of drug policies are generally young and educated, and want Georgia to engage more with the EU, where drug laws tend to be more lenient and, unlike Georgia's drug laws, differentiate between kinds and amounts of drugs.
They face a large majority of conservatives in the country, who are backed by the influential Georgian Orthodox church. They too want to get closer to the EU — but for economic reasons.
The number of intravenous drug users in the country actually increased by 13 percent between 2009 and 2012. Today, only about 5 percent of drug users have access to treatment.
The current government's position isn't clear. It's led by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who at 31 is the second-youngest state leader in the world, behind only North Korea's Kim Jong-un. While Garibashvili desires closer relations with the EU, he also knows he has to appease the conservative majority. He has said he won't legalize marijuana, but in a press conference earlier this month, he admitted that when it came to Beqa's particular case, the "politics have changed — the approach is different."
“There are three main ways how the state profits from this drug policy,” says David Otiashvili of drug-policy advocacy group Alternative Georgia. “Firstly, they make a huge amount of money through fines. Secondly, it is a very useful instrument of power for the police to control a huge amount of people; historically it has been used to manipulate the political opposition through blackmail, and that still happens.”
During the Soviet era, planting drugs in someone's house was a relatively easy way to make them disappear for up to 11 years. Then, as now, drug fines were prohibitively expensive, meaning that many users were forced to become police informants.
“And thirdly,” Otiashvili continues, “drug policy is effectively used for political campaigning. It works with many people, who are scared of the consequences politicians tell them a more liberal drug policy would have.”
In the 1990s, after Georgia gained independence from Russia and a civil war broke out, there really was a serious drug problem in the country. People still talk about junkies inhabiting subways and syringes littering the ground. In 2003, the Rose Revolution occurred, and President Misha Saakashvili enacted a zero tolerance drug policy.
On the surface, his approach worked; drug addicts disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi as heroine became virtually unavailable and prices soared. But the reality was that addicts shifted toward toxic, homemade drugs like the notorious krokodil, made from ingredients like toilet cleaner and lighter fluid. According to Alternative Georgia, the number of intravenous drug users in the country actually increased by 13 percent between 2009 and 2012. Today, only about 5 percent of drug users have access to treatment.
“Pretty much everyone in Georgia knows someone who has been in contact with the law-enforcement concerning drugs,” says Neli Tsivtsivadze, a lawyer who works on Beqa's campaign. “People are fed up with it. They just want to be normal and have the same kind of freedom as other places in Europe.”
Beqa's trial was recently postponed for the 15th time. (His lawyers, prosecutors, and the judge have all called for postponements for various reasons.) Meanwhile, on June 27 Georgia is set to sign a new agreement with the EU to ease trade restrictions and increase political cooperation, a process that has been sped up in response to the events in Ukraine. EU officials stress that the agreement includes a responsibility for Georgia to safeguard human rights. The Georgian government is getting closer to fulfilling the required demands — at least on paper.
Watching people dance while sipping a beer at the protest on Rustaveli square, a 35-year-old university professor and ex-soldier named Ilya shrugs his broad shoulders.
“All we can do," he says, "is fight for tomorrow.”