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Rights group: Tough laws wrong response to Tunisia's drugs problem

Activists say Tunisia's tough laws on smoking cannabis are ruining young people's lives
A strict crackdown on cannabis smokers is having a negative impact in Tunisia (AFP)

By Ines Bel Aiba

TUNIS - Tunisia's tough law on cannabis use, laying down jail terms of at least one year, is "destroying lives" and overcrowding prisons, according to a group of activists urging reform.

Since the law was passed more than 20 years ago, "tens of thousands of Tunisians have been convicted", the group said in an open letter to the government.

"But the number of people sentenced and the number of users continue to grow, proving that this law is not a deterrent. It has failed," said the group, named Al Sajin 52 (Prisoner 52) as the law is called.

Smoking "zatla", or cannabis resin, is punishable by between one and five years in jail, with the same law prohibiting judges from passing lighter sentences for extenuating circumstances.

As a result, more than half of the 13,000 people in pre-trial detention, and around one third of Tunisia's 11,000 convicts were arrested for drugs abuse, and cannabis in particular, according to UN figures.

One young Tunisian who spent more than seven months in jail is haunted by the experience three years on.

"You smoke a joint and you find yourself in the same cell as a guy who murdered and another who raped," said the ex-convict, requesting anonymity.

"I smoke cannabis regularly, but I'm a good guy and I come from a family with no criminal history. Prison was my phobia, and since I did time I always think about it," he told AFP.

The activists insist their group is not calling for the drug to be legalised because, according to Amal Amraoui, one of its founders, "the aim should be something achievable, and attitudes are not ready for that".

"But we want the prison sentence to be abolished, whether it be reduced to a fine, or the jail term replaced by a suspended sentence, by community service," said the 25-year-old, who lamented the studies and careers "broken" by prison.

"People are beginning to realise. Before they thought those who were arrested were scum. Now they're increasingly aware that it can happen to anyone, whatever their level of education or social background."

While attitudes may be evolving, efforts to reform the law are eyed with suspicion in Tunisia, where cannabis users are still considered criminals by the majority of the population.

Outspoken politician and businessman Hechmi Hamdi, whose party came second in 2011 legislative elections, has called on the government to declare a "state of emergency" in the fight against cannabis.

"The growing use of zatla in educational establishments threatens the future of a large part of the youth, who are the hope of tomorrow," he said.

Reforms to 'humanise'

Health ministry director general Nabil Ben Salah said the health and justice ministries are trying to "humanise" the legislation, although decriminalising the drug is not an option.

"People tend to trivialise the effects of cannabis whereas it's very harmful, especially for adolescent brains, it can destroy a huge number of brain cells."

A reform under consideration would authorise judges to take mitigating circumstances into account before passing judgement, said Ben Salah.

But lawyer Ghazi Mrabet, a founding member of Al Sajin 52, said the whole system was resistant to change because of a lucrative business connected to cannabis-related arrests.

"People come to see me whose child has been arrested for [cannabis] use who are ready to do anything to prevent them going to jail," including paying bribes to police and magistrates, the lawyer explained to AFP.

"When I refuse, they turn to other lawyers, who, according to what clients tell me, who make sure the urine test is negative or the name disappears from police reports," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, "some judges end up with tears in their eyes as they deliver the verdict" because they have to hand down jail terms, he said, calling for a national debate.

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