A Tunisian youth group recently called for the creation of a “National Cannabis Bureau.” The group, calling itself “Badal”, said the law criminalizing the consumption of this plant, which has become known in Tunisia as “Law No. 52”, is destroying the future of many in the country.
This call rekindles the controversy in Tunisia regarding the consumption of cannabis, known in slang as “zatla.” The law criminalizing it has often been widely criticized by many jurists who consider it “cruel and the time has come to review it.”
Amin (24-years-old) was a diligent student at the Faculty of Engineering but is now in jail because of the cursed plant. “He was arrested, with his friend for the crime of smoking hashish, his sister, Nadera, told An-Nahar al-Arabi. She confirmed in a tone of sadness her brother’s future was destroyed because of the “damn cigarette”, explaining he is “a young man of good conduct, everyone testifies to that.” . “He was only a few months away from graduating, and today he finds himself imprisoned for a cigarette,” she says.
Tunisian law criminalizes the consumption of “zatla”, with imprisonment. Law 52 of the issued in the early 1990s carries a one-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of drug possession and five years for repeat offences.
Badal says Law 52 must be revised. Group member Najla Qadiya told An-Nahar Al-Arabi, said this law “caused the destruction of the lives of many people in Tunisia at a time when most countries in the world removed cannabis from the list of dangerous drugs.”
In place of punishment, she proposes revising the law, creating a “National Cannabis Bureau”, legalizing consumption and providing health education to consumers.
Also Osama Al-Khamsi of Badal criticized the national consultation process launched by President Qais Saeed for not addressing Law 52 and its victims, noting the capacity of prisons have reached 150 percent due to the high number of people accused of consuming cannabis.
He told An-Nahar Al-Arabi “20 percent of prisoners in Tunisia are arrested for cases of cannabis consumption.”
Advocates of liberalizing the consumption of “zatla” say this substance is not like other types of drugs. Ayman Al-Rezki, a member of the Kaif Liberation Front (group demanding the liberation of cannabis consumption), enumerates says this plant has many “benefits”, stressing the need to distinguish from other types of narcotics. He points out it has medicinal and industrial uses.
Demonstrations were often organized to demand the abolition of the law and liberalization of cannabis. Last year, a court ruling to imprison three young men in northwest Tunisia for 30 years for consuming cannabis sparked much anger as infringement of human rights.
Al-Rezki asserts legalizing the consumption of “kef” under state supervision will help eradicate crime and confront organized gangs that monopolize and sell it on the black market.
The debate over cannabis in Tunisia has often moved from the human rights field to the political field, becoming an issue exploited in electoral campaigns. The late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi promised before his election in 2014 to work to change this law and present a new draft law based on consumer’s right to treatment and to lift the prison sentence imposed. It didn’t happen.
Essebsi faced much criticism. His opponents said he tried to court young people to his election campaign and didn’t achieve what he promised. Others said his attempts to change the law would have merely encouraged young people to use drugs. Lawyer Ahmed bin Hasana told An-Nahar Al-Arabi the abolition of prison sentences would have increased the encouragement of drug consumption and promotion. He pointed out there is a need to pay attention to its “danger to society and its great impact on the minds of young people and its link to other heinous crimes.”
Later on a party was formed called “Al-Warraqah”, in reference to cannabis leaves. It sought to defend the legalization of the substance in the legislative elections of 2019, but the party did not win any seat.
According to a study by the Association for Addiction Medicine, the rate of cannabis addiction in Tunisia among the 15 to 17 age group increased three times in 2017 compared to 2010. It is estimated 150,000 people were convicted of the crime of consuming cannabis in Tunisia since the beginning of the implementation of the Law.
Human rights activists in Tunisia are calling for the liberalization of cannabis cultivation as is the case in Morocco and turned its cultivation into a project helping to employ young people and benefit its economy.
Al-Rezki says legalizing its cultivation in specific places while imposing state control over it as well as controlling its trade will generate billions of dollars for the Tunisian treasury.
Al-Rizki emphasizes the experiences of several countries that benefited from the cultivation of this plant, such as in California in the US and in Uruguay. There, cannabis cultivation flourishes for medical purposes whilst stressing “the world is developing, and this is a substance similar to gold,” he says.
Head of the Al-Warqa Party Qais bin Halima says the cultivation of cannabis will enable the country to earn about 100 million euros in year and provide about 3,000 job opportunities.