(Tbilisi) – Georgia’s drug laws and their aggressive enforcement is causing severe and unjustifiable harm, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Drug prosecutions for consumption and possession often lead to long prison sentences and prohibitive fines against people who have not harmed others, but who acquired small amounts of drugs for personal, recreational use.

The 67-page report, “Harsh Punishment: The Human Toll of Georgia’s Abusive Drug Laws,” describes the impact of overly punitive drug laws and practices on people who use drugs, and on their families. Human Rights Watch documented abusive, mandatory street drug testing, coerced plea bargains, and arbitrary additional punishments, such as stripping people of their driver’s licenses or prohibiting them from working in an array of professions, interfering with their ability to earn a livelihood. Georgia has partially liberalized drug laws, but they remain harsh.

“Every year, Georgian authorities needlessly detain thousands of people, subject them to forced drug tests and funnel them through the criminal justice system, for nothing more than drug consumption or possession for personal use,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, and author of the report. “Locking people up for no more than using drugs causes tremendous harm and does nothing to help those who need and want treatment.”

The report is based on more than 85 in-depth interviews with people who have been prosecuted for drug-related crimes, their lawyers and family members, as well as social workers, community organization leaders, government officials, and various advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations.

In Georgia, first-time illegal drug consumption or possession of a small quantity of drugs for personal use is a misdemeanor. A repeat offense within a year results in criminal liability.

However, Georgian law does not establish a threshold for small quantities of approximately three-quarters of the substances classified as illicit drugs, including those commonly used in Georgia, such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, and desomorphine. Possession of even particles of these substances, including residue in a syringe, automatically qualifies as a large amount, triggering a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. Possession of more than one gram is considered a “particularly large amount” and could result in life imprisonment.

In one case, in 2016, police arrested Kote Japaridze, 23, for possession of two grams of the recreational synthetic drug MDMA (“ecstasy”) and charged him with possession of a particularly large quantity of drugs. Facing up to 20 years in prison, Japaridze entered into a plea deal, and a court sentenced him to six years in prison, five of which were suspended. The court also imposed a fine of 25,000 Georgian lari (roughly US$10,800). Japaridze struggles to repay the debt for the fine and has been deprived of his driver’s license and banned from working in certain jobs for five years.

“The drugs I bought were for personal use, and yet I am paying dearly for it,” Japaridze told Human Rights Watch.

Every year, police randomly detain thousands of people for coerced drug testing for which fewer than 30 percent test positive. Police use positive test results as evidence for pressing administrative or criminal sanctions. If the person refuses to undergo testing, police can detain them for up to 12 hours in a forensics lab. Georgian law does not give people held for testing the same rights as detainees, such as the right to make a phone call, leaving them vulnerable to ill-treatment by the police, Human Rights Watch said.

Georgian law imposes long, mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, with a nearly 100 percent conviction rate for these offenses. As a result, a person charged with a drug-related offense often feels there is no other choice than to agree to a plea deal to avoid a long prison term. These plea deals also lead to prohibitive fines, which can financially devastate the accused and his or her family.

In another case Human Rights Watch documented, a family lost their home to pay drug-related criminal fines.

Drug felony convictions also lead to suspension of driver’s licenses and a ban on work in all government positions and educational and medical institutions for periods ranging from 3 to 20 years after release from prison. Such restrictions effectively strip many people of their livelihoods, Human Rights Watch said.

Some of the harsher features of Georgia’s current drug policies and practices were adopted in 2006, and starting in 2012, Georgia’s leadership partially liberalized them. The government reduced criminal penalties for drug possession and consumption. It also adopted a National Strategy and Action Plan to fight drug addiction, which emphasized the importance of public health and prevention of drug use.

Recent constitutional court rulings further liberalized drug policies. Most recently, on July 30, 2018, the court abolished remaining administrative sanctions for marijuana consumption.

The Georgian government offers, free of charge, opioid substitution with Methadone or Suboxone, and short-term detoxification and rehabilitation. Since 2012, the government has significantly increased financial allocations for these programs.

The Georgian authorities should decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs, Human Rights Watch said. This means removing all criminal sanctions for use and possession of drugs for personal use.

“Many people understandably want the government to address the harmful use of drugs, but the most effective way is to focus on public health responses,” Gogia said. “Criminalization and locking people up for using drugs is not an answer.”