World News

Movement to Legalize Drug Use Gains in a Former Soviet Republic

Posted May 14, 2018 5:51 p.m. EDT

MOSCOW — Demonstrators rallied in Georgia over the weekend over an issue new to street protest movements in the former Soviet countries: a demand to legalize recreational drug use.

Though the protesters were quickly dismissed by their opponents as deadbeats and drug addicts bent only on keeping up their own habits, Georgia’s government took the movement seriously enough both to negotiate and to move water cannons into position in the streets of the capital, Tbilisi.

Drug laws in former Soviet countries, even those that in other ways lean politically toward the West, like Georgia, tend to be far harsher than in Western Europe.

The activist group behind the protests, White Noise, formed in 2013 to defend a man facing eight years in prison for possessing about 2 ounces of marijuana. That case, against Beka Tsikarishvili, eventually ended with a fine, but White Noise has gained traction by rallying support for others facing long prison terms.

The protests this weekend were set off by police drug raids on two clubs Friday evening.

It was a novel cause for street demonstrations in a region where government protesters typically come out against corruption or rulers who cling to power despite term limits. Those were the motivating factors for the “color revolutions” that have toppled several former Soviet governments.

“This is the young generation,” Shota Utiashvili, a senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said. “For them, Friday night is a holy thing.”

Crowds gathered Saturday and Sunday and called for the resignation of Georgia’s prime minister. They drew attention in the wake of street actions in neighboring Armenia that had toppled a leader seeking to stay on beyond his term limit. Speculation swirled that the protests might snowball and threaten the governing party, Georgian Dream.

But while the protests raised the profile of the White Noise group and its cause of liberalizing drug laws, they did not spread beyond young people.

“We’re a conservative Christian country and most people would support even harsher policies,” Utiashvili said.

A counterprotest broke out and by late Sunday the pro-legalization crowd had disbanded.

The authorities said they had acted with good cause in the club raids. The police action followed at least five overdose deaths this year, they said.

The police released videos showing dealers openly trading in public spaces and said that the synthetic opioid drugs that are a scourge around the world were also a threat in Georgia.

The protest broke up after the interior minister, Giorgi Gakharia, apologized for excessive use of force by the police and promised to meet with White Noise activists to discuss the nation’s drug policy.

Georgia’s prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, issued a statement Sunday saying that “the government will have a firm position on the drug trade on the one hand, and will be a lot more humane to drug users on the other.”