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Georgian Grass is Greener

The Former Soviet Republic of Georgia has gained the spotlight since the announcement that U.S. military trainers will soon be arriving to assist the Georgian army in clearing the notorious Pankisi Gorge of terrorists. Though it is doubtful that Chechen warriors with ties to al-Qaeda are active in the Gorge, military action will definitely impact on the criminal element operating there. For years, the area has been known for protracted kidnappings and as a corridor for black market goods and hard drugs along the Silk Road and into Europe.

What that particular region is not known for, however, is quality marijuana. Though cannabis grows wild here and is picked freely, generally the best stuff comes from the mountainous regions of the country—where the climate and isolation provide the time to allow for plants to mature and be properly processed. Nosey neighbors, an impatient character, or demanding friends mean that dope in the city is served young and wet. Ideally, bud should be left around to dry for a few days, then left to cure gently and in peace for awhile longer. This does not usually jibe with the threshold of patience exhibited by your average live-for-today-minded Georgian. In a society rattled from the comfort of its Communist-era prosperity and forced through the awkward moves of a prolonged “transitioning” period, faith in the future falls short.

More often that you might think, it’s babushki on pensions who care for the plants, set along the windowsill with other varieties of greenery, out along the hedge of a small family home, or even out at the family dacha. I believe that their grandchildren are very grateful, and am quite sure that the grandmothers themselves are quite clueless though obliging nonetheless. Thanks to the legacy of central planning the average balcony in one of the many Soviet-style blocks that pepper the city receives a significant amount of direct sunlight each day, which is great for growing plants of all sorts. So, it is not uncommon to add a bit of K.B. to grandma’s collection.

Wish Tree

Although it may be convenient to keep one’s supply close at hand, the usual result is low quality bud consumed by an anxious group of friends painfully aware of their limited stash. As an American ex-pat here so artfully phrased it, “This ain’t your high-tech, quality, hydroponic bud, but it’ll do.” Twenty-four hour high-intensity lighting which would make for a much quicker and higher yield is impossible, simply because there is rarely a twenty-four hour electricity supply to the capital, much less the outer regions.

This just proves another plus for wild cultivation—no Park Rangers to intrude on your crop; no threat of pre-harvest confiscation by police through the use of aerial photography. When I asked some Georgian soldiers about night vision glasses for patrol, they giggled and took it as a saucy bit of innuendo along the lines of beer goggling. After inquiring about aerial photography capacity, I was invited to look at some pictures. Intrigued by the prospect, I was incredibly disappointed when I saw a photo of young men standing around the helicopter, another of a guy flying the helicopter, a couple of the guys on the helicopter…

 In fact, despite all of the supposed overhead traffic, the best herb is to be found along the border with the breakaway republic of Abkhazia in the Gali Region. I guess they’re too busy tracking down hordes of organized Chechen terrorists or Osama bin Laden to notice vast crops of weed. “A friend just came back from a trip to Zugdidi,” [a town along the Abkhaz border] is enough to bring a smile to many a Tbilisi-ite face.

I’ve also heard tell of a third century church near the border of Armenia—Vardzia. When traveling there, if you are so inclined, it’s a good idea to ask to see “the OTHER church”, which is just over the mountain. Between the road and a small ancient church grows a field of free range, unattended herb. As is true as far as many other aspects of life in Georgia are concerned: Always expect the unexpected. I once stumbled upon a small crop in Imereti [central Georgia] at a local museum, where, as I was busy making furtive glances at both the healthy bud and my hip companion, the guide was explaining the traditional form and timelessness of Georgian wine-making practices. “This is called a kvevri [a clay pot, placed underground as part of the wine-making process],” served as background to our telepathic conversation, punctuated as it were by eye-rolling and facial ticks. “DO YOU SEE THAT?”

Herb is generally sold in matchboxes, sometimes referred to as “carrablee” [ships], not by weight. I think this speaks to, if not low consumption, then the inability of most people to buy larger quantities at once, as the cost of a matchbox of basic bud will start at thirty lari, the equivalent of almost fifteen U.S. dollars. When the average student stipend isn’t enough to allow them to maintain their daily coffee and khachapuri [like pizza, without the sauce] habit, one can understand the luxury of purchased herb.

Bongs and pipes are unheard of, as is rolling paper. Pot is usually smoked (as is hash) by sliding the filter out of a cigarette, loosening the tobacco and inserting a small bit of herb into the filter area with the assistance of the tax stamp usually affixed on a pack of cigarettes or—as is more often the case because black market cigarettes are cheaper, hence no stamp—a piece of the cardboard pack itself. As it was explained to me, menthol is the cigarette of choice in this matter because of the delightful interplay of cool mint and righteous bud flavors. Most young people like to think of this as comparable to a “spliff” (check your Gangsta Rap Encyclopedia), but, alas, this is not the case. Minute portions of herb may be stuffed into a cigarette, whereas copious amounts are used to create a genuine “spliff”. So, this style of drug consumption is marked by repeated shuffles out for another round, which one would imagine could only prove increasingly inconvenient.

An alternative method for ingesting marijuana without smoking it is “managua”, basically pot—stems, seeds, leaves and all—boiled in milk, cooled for as long as one can hold out, then served. If it doesn’t make you puke, you get a pleasant buzz from it. Selling eggnog at a local student fundraiser proved an eye-opener, as most customers thought they were getting an 80 tetri (roughly 37 cents) high as opposed to a little exposure to a quaint American Christmas tradition. As it was explained to me, “managua” comes from the waste-not-want-not school of drug use. It challenges one’s gag reflex, but a “managua”-drinker receives the full benefit of the plant’s precious THC because after taking the long route through the body the THC will be absorbed almost entirely, unlike smoking when some of it burns off as waste. In fact, this approach somehow appeals to my inner-environmentalist, who nods approvingly at the prudent use of limited natural resources. It’s also extremely practical—and, not only in terms of the bang-to-buck ratio. If found with a pack of cigarettes without a top (although people often tear the tops off to use as ashtrays), one faces a serious shake down by the cops…

And cops are a major problem. As far as I have been able to ascertain, “Possession” itself is not a charge, nor is “Possession with intent to distribute”, as it would be in the States. One is basically charged with being a “Narcoman” [drug user], and, has no right to refuse a drug test, which serves as judge and jury in itself. It’s a three hundred dollar bribe to be let go by the police and it’s worth every tetri, why? “Narcomen” can, by law, be “sentenced to treatment”, which is a pretty frightening ordeal that in no way should conjure up images of rehab resorts frequented by the Hollywood elite or the wholesome camaraderie of an Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It’s brutish, forced incarceration in Soviet medical facilities for an undetermined period of time. Think “Cuckoo’s Nest” without Nicholson.

There is also the fear among those of a certain age that the charge will be stamped into their workbook—which everyone was once required to keep, an official booklet on their work history. There is the impression that it will forevermore prove impossible to get reliable work (AKA “a real job”) with that blight on one’s record. The police know this and use this to their advantage to apply more pressure.

Perhaps that is why there is no general interest in arresting dealers, despite the fact that most laws focus primarily on the importation and production/cultivation of all sorts of narcotics. Savvy dealers work in cooperation with the police by selling out the occasional client in return for the ability to continue their work in peace. It’s a convenient partnership, and a blatantly obvious one—especially when a marshroutka (the most popular and congested form of public transportation) is stopped and the cops order “the guy with the blue sweater” off of the mini-bus. In situations like this the set up is understood by everyone else in the marshroutka, as is the guilt of the proverbial “guy with the blue sweater,” because as logic would dictate, if he hadn’t made a purchase the dealer couldn’t have pointed him out to the police. Right?

The terror of being officially registered as a drug user will convince anyone to round up enough cash from friends and relatives to keep the “law” at bay. Once registered, you leave yourself open to a lifetime of harassment if local law enforcement officials choose to hold this over your head in the interest of their economic health. “A hundred bucks or I haul you in for questioning/testing,” is not something anyone wants to put himself in the position of facing on a daily basis. Understand that you don’t have to actually be carrying at the time or show any visible signs of being under the influence. A registered “narcoman” is the bread and butter of local law enforcement. The fear of being caught reflects the corruption of police more than any anti-marijuana sentiment or official law. Being “caught” doesn’t mean facing a judge and a prison sentence. Being “caught” means being hassled and physically threatened with no recourse and no rules.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Bill of Rights protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and self-incrimination, respectively. There are no such legal protections widely in use in Georgia. Or, rather more to the point, I doubt that there’s a citizen around who’s going to, once stopped and hassled by the cops, cough up anything but as much of the bribe required that he’s got on hand, or can round up with a few phone calls…He’s not likely to begin quoting from the Criminal Code. Abuse of power by police is a given in this country. Start trouble by doing anything but handing over some cash, and you might very well end up very hurt or charged with a more serious and completely unrelated offence.

American dope users also enjoy protection against intrusive law enforcement practices, and officers of the law are required to present a valid search warrant and of course suffer the labor of love that is “probable cause”—the burden is on them to answer for why any specific individual is stopped for questioning; a true thing of beauty, yeah, when compared to this land of random, unprovoked searches and shake downs. In America, everyone is empowered with the right to refuse that either themselves be searched or their property. Somehow, I think that right is denied most Georgian men, walking home late at night, when the local cops are running low on cigarettes and their shift doesn’t end for hours and the small talk has given way to an aching boredom…After the hunt for the chance to grab a little cash and dole out a little intimidation has begun, I find it very unlikely that anyone would have the nerve to pithily state to the officers in question, as the HighTimes advice column suggests: “I do not consent to a search of my person, belongings, home, or vehicle. I retain my [Georgia’s equivalent to the Fourth Amendment rights and all other rights under the United States Constitution]. I will say nothing until my attorney is present.” Yeah, right.

Special thanks go out to various Georgian youths kind enough to explain the chemical folkways of their generation to me; the cop who didn’t hit me when I asked if three hundred dollars was in the range of a correct bribe amount; the wizened counter culture figure who tried to help me discover the roots of the term “managua”; and, the lawyer who took time out of his day to explain the finer points of Georgian law.

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