Compulsory drug testing in Georgia has soared over the last decade, with people who use drugs facing the prospect of paying prohibitively expensive fines if they test positive.
On August 7, policemen in the Georgian municipality of Samtredia took 22-year-old Demur Sturua out of his village, severely beat him and pressured him to provide information on cannabis growers operating in the surrounding villages. After enduring the beating and humiliation, Sturua committed suicide.
The death sparked outrage, with people taking to the streets across Georgia to demand an independent investigation into the case, and the dismissal of the chief-of-police in Samtredia. The White Noise Movement, a campaign against violent narco-politics, stated that Sturua’s suicide was a fatal result of both physical and mental abuse exerted by police, Tabula reports.
Sturua’s case is sadly indicative of Georgia’s extremely repressive drug laws. As activists in the country describe it, being a person who uses drugs in Georgia poses a daily risk to one’s “freedom or wallet”, a phrase referring to the widespread drug testing regime in place that penalises failure with exorbitant fines.
In 2006, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Health adopted joint Decree #1049-233n, which outlined the procedures for random street drug testing when there is a suspicion of illicit drug use. Compulsory drug testing is now commonplace in the country and one of the key concerns of human rights defenders. It is not only a practice that violates the basic rights of drug users, but also serves as the basis for imprisonment.
Georgia’s legislation dictates that if someone tests positive for illicit drugs they have to pay a fine of 500 GEL (around $200). If there is a second positive result within 12 months, the fine grows to 2,000 GEL and is accompanied by a 6-12 month prison sentence. In the case of repeated positive testing, a person is fined 5,000 GEL and given 1-2 years on probation.
Unsurprisingly, in 2007 – the year following the Decree’s introduction – the number of people tested for drugs increased tenfold (see graph from Alternative Georgia). The numbers of people tested annually has since fallen, though the rate of positive tests has remained relatively consistent at around 30 per cent.
Legend: Blue zone – number of people brought in for compulsory drug testing, red zone – number of positive results, green – number of people detained, yellow – number of people who underwent treatment. Source
Giorgi Gogua, a media activist working for the Georgian Harm Reduction Network (GHRN), told TalkingDrugs about his personal experience of being tested for drug use. Since 2009, he was tested three times and each time the result was positive. Each positive test incurred a huge fine. “Over these years I paid overall 12,500 GEL (roughly $5,400) only for having traces of psychoactive substance in my urine. I never was caught on possession of any drugs,” says Giorgi.
According to the White Noise Movement, Georgian police currently test approximately 112 citizens every day for drugs through urine samples. In the past seven years, 327,272 citizens have been tested and 33 tons of urine have been gathered. The government has spent roughly 17 million GEL ($7.3 million) on these tests.
In the 2015 National Survey on Substance Use in Georgia, approximately 70 per cent of the general population supported the idea that individuals with drug dependency issues should be treated as patients, while only 15 per cent considered them to be criminals. However, around 47 per cent support financial sanctions against people who use illegal drugs.
Marina Chokheli, a lawyer and head of the harm reduction program at Open Society Foundations in Georgia told TalkingDrugs:
Georgia is [on] its way toward integration with the EU and therefore needs to focus on harmonising its legislation with European standards and the protection of human rights. Current Georgian drug policy, and particularly the practice of "street drug testing" is inconsistent with a number of norms of the Constitution of Georgia and European Convention of Human Rights. At the same time it blocks access to harm reduction and public health programmes.
Georgia definitely will have to change its current ineffective "street drug testing" regime. But the questions are when, and how many people will be arrested before that happens?
See the new DUNews video, “Behind the Looking Glass of Georgian Drug Policy,” on the current situation in Georgia for more details: