Georgia is a country that's not in the spotlight often enough. They have an ancient European history, even though they're east of Turkey, so technically considered part of Asia. Their language is one of few in the world with a distinctive alphabet. Its mountainous landscapes hold so many caves, fortresses, and sculptures, it's like something from the mind of Tolkien. Yet this beautiful country rarely makes Western news outside of its conflicts with breakaway regions and its northern neighbour Russia. Now they are building buzz for being the latest country to legalize cannabis consumption!

The country's Constitutional Court has been examining Georgian laws towards cannabis. Last year, they ruled that consuming cannabis should be decriminalised. This helped build momentum for legislation currently in parliament to decriminalise the possession of all drugs. This latest court ruling has surprised the international community. The Constitutional Court has now gone even further and legalized cannabis consumption, removing any criminal penalty for personal use of cannabis. However, this does not mean there will be full legalization of selling and cultivating cannabis. Not yet. Let's look a bit closer at how this ruling came to be.

CAMPAIGNING IN GEORGIA

Recent years have seen growing demand for drug law reform. There has been advocacy from groups like the White Noise Movement and regular rallies in favour of legalizing cannabis. It is fascinating to see a former Soviet state emerge as a more youth-driven political culture. This push for reforming cannabis laws in particular found an unlikely ally in a new small political party. They have no representation in the current parliament, but they are making national news.

This party called Girchi, or "New Political Center", leans toward libertarianism. Their activists took on a legal challenge to the Georgian state, not specifically to support cannabis, but to support personal liberty. The party's pro-EU, pro-free market leader Zurab Japaridze filed a legal challenge alongside Vakhtang Megrelishvili. Japaridze was quoted as saying, "This wasn't a fight for cannabis. This was a fight for freedom".

New Political Center Zurab Japaridze

COURT RULING

Their legal challenge proved to be historic as the Constitutional Court ruled in their favour. After examining the Constitution of Georgia, judges concluded that there is technically allowance to consume cannabis without interference under the Constitution. The Court announced its ruling with a statement on July 30th, 2018. According to the ruling, cannabis "can only harm the user's health, making that user him/herself responsible for the outcome. The responsibility for such actions does not cause dangerous consequences for the public". Since an individual making a personal decision to consume cannabis is not directly harming anyone else, it is therefore considered to be something the law should not punish.

This ruling is interesting in an international context, because it is a sign of shifting attitudes concerning cannabis globally. Georgia's approach is in contrast to Germany's, who consider cannabis use a form of self-harm and therefore continue to prohibit it. Georgia's breakthrough is more comparable to South Africa, where a court in 2017 declared that their constitutional right to privacy protected the growing and consumption of cannabis for personal use. However, that ruling is currently with the South African Supreme Court of Appeals, so the current prohibition still stands. If the Supreme Court of Appeals upholds the ruling, perhaps South Africa will reform its entire laws around cannabis, especially given the opportunity it has as one of the world's biggest cannabis producers.

Back in Georgia, their landscape could be quite suitable for high-quality cannabis cultivation. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Court's ruling specified that selling or cultivating cannabis are still offences. You just won't be arrested if found consuming personal amounts of cannabis. Even that comes with caveats, owing to the Constitutional Court's interpretation of public safety. The ruling, in fact, states that cannabis consumption can be prosecuted when it creates a threat to third parties. For instance, the court will justify responsibility when marijuana is consumed in educational institutions, public places such as on public transport, and in the presence of children. So public consumption of cannabis and providing cannabis to minors will remain offences.

POTENTIAL OF THE GEORGIAN CANNABIS INDUSTRY

So even though Georgia has a well-situated terroir for cannabis growing, and though it is now legal to use cannabis, it still isn't legal to buy, sell, or grow cannabis there. Therefore, it's oversimplifying to claim Georgia has legalized cannabis fully. If their attitude on this shifts, however, they would be among the first nations to legalize. Uruguay came first with their members-only cannabis club system. Canada will have regulated cultivation and retail of cannabis from late 2018 onward. There has already been speculation on what would happen to Georgia if they also legalized cannabis fully.

Tata Lobzhanidze of The Financial writes, "If the Parliament of Georgia legislates marijuana consumption, distribution and cultivation to be legal, the extent of the local market will be increased by over GEL 1.3 billion in 2018". Lobzhanidze goes on to frame how significant that is in a Georgian context, writing, "Taking into account that the budget revenue in Georgia is about GEL 8.6 billion, an additional GEL 1.3 billion income is quite worthy to revalue baseless beliefs about the threats of marijuana use".

It wouldn't just be a niche industry for the country to develop innovations in. It could also be a significant tourism draw, especially for its immediate neighbours, none of whom have legal recreational cannabis. In fact, none of the top ten countries with visitors to Georgia have legal cannabis. So maybe if Georgia seizes this opportunity, we may start to hear a lot more about them—and maybe pay them a visit, even more so when you realise that 1 GEL is worth only 0.35 EUR.

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