Marijuana Growth Blocked by Church in Georgia: 'What Is the Use of the Economy if We Lose Our Children?'

The former Soviet republic of Georgia wants to legalize the cultivation and export of medical marijuana but has faced strong opposition from the country's religious leaders.

Georgia's ruling party introduced legislation in parliament this week that would legalize the growth of cannabis specifically to export for pharmaceutical and cosmetic use, according to Radio Free Europe. Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani has said that the country can earn some $384 million within the next few years by tapping into the market.

While the political opposition has criticized the bill, that is not because they are against legal weed. To the contrary, the opposition has argued the bill does not go far enough and has pushed to legalize the sale and cultivation for recreational use within the country as well.

Activists gather during a rally in support of marijuana legalization in central Tbilisi, Georgia, on June 2, 2015. The former Soviet Republic of Georgia wants to legalize the cultivation and export of medical marijuana but has faced strong opposition from the country’s religious leaders. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

But Georgia's powerful Orthodox Church has taken a staunchly critical position. Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the church, preached a Sunday sermon blasting the proposal. He accused the government of putting financial concerns over the welfare of its citizens.

"What is the use of the economy if we lose our children?" he said, according to the BBC. Hundreds of believers then marched to the center of the capital, Tbilisi, to protest the legislation, leading the government to put the bill on hold temporarily.

Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze said that misinformation had been spread about the bill, arguing that opponents believed the government was moving to legalize all drugs. "False information is being spread, so we need to pay particular attention to informing the public, and then take the decision together," he explained.

Following a series of rulings from the Georgia's Constitutional Court at the end of last year and then in July, Georgians can now legally consume cannabis in the country without concern. The plant was first decriminalized in a November ruling, and then this summer the top court ruled that it was unconstitutional to target and punish marijuana users. It maintained however, that cultivation and selling would still be illegal.

As a result, opposition politicians and marijuana campaigners have criticized the parliament's proposed legislation as hypocritical.

Giga Bokeria, a leading parliament deputy, called the proposal "absurd," saying it did not legalize the cultivation and sale of the plant for use within the country. Bokeria strongly urged the government to make cannabis growth and sales legal "for everyone," according to Radio Free Europe. The politician also said that while government regulation was necessary, it should not be the only one to profit from the plant.

Arguing in support of the legislation, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze pointed to Canada and Israel as examples of countries that had successfully developed markets for cultivation. He said that his government would "borrow the successful practice" and called the bill "a very responsible decision."

Laura Jones-Compton carries medicinal marijuana plants at Tweed Inc. in Smith Falls, Ontario, on December 5, 2016. LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Despite significant political support for legalization to an extent, Orthodox leaders remain critical. As the BBC reported, the church also ties cannabis and drug use to the LGBTQ community, which it also staunchly opposes.

"LGBT propaganda promotes a drastically liberalized drugs policy that contradicts Church teachings," Father Andria Jaghmaidze, who regularly shares the church's perspective with the media, told the British broadcaster.

Patriarch Ilia II also warned that if the government's efforts move forward, "drug addicts will start coming here from foreign countries to enjoy the freedom."

But the county's agricultural sector does not share the religious leaders' concerns.

"The whole world is trying to diversify agriculture, and in many developed economies you can see that the cultivation of marijuana is close to the top of the agenda, especially for medicinal use," Nino Zambakhidze, CEO of the Georgia Farmers Association, told the think tank Emerging Europe earlier this month.

"I think that this initiative will be very supportive to the Georgian economy," she added.