Over the past several months, cannabis users have found themselves facing a new wave of repression. Those arrested are exposed to flagrant violations of their physical integrity and right to fair trial. Major drug dealers, on the other hand, are enjoying impunity, notes Nawres Zoghbi Douzi, coordinator for the Alliance for Security and Freedoms (ASL) and Wael Zarrouk of the Collective for the Legalization of Cannabis. Cannabis users are the main target of the government’s repressive policies, which Zarrouk describes as being “unprecedented since the Ben Ali era.

People are locked up for carrying rolling paper or a paper filter (cala) in their packet of cigarettes, Zoghbi Douzi tells Nawaat. ASL groups together a number of civil society organizations that work in defense of human rights, and provides legal assistance to those whose rights have been violated in the process of their detention under Law 52 of 1992 relating to narcotics.

This campaign which criminalizes cannabis users touches all segments of society. Even youth with a pristine criminal record are not spared, says Zoghbi Douzi. The ASL offers support for youth between the ages of 16 and 35 who have been charged and do not have the means to hire a lawyer.

Police misconduct

Arrests in this context entail acts of police violence following random searches conducted in the public space or house raids. “The profiling of certain youth sometimes suffices as grounds for presumption of guilt followed by incarceration,” Zoghbi Douzi informs Nawaat.

Decree-law 54 of 2022 against violations relating to information and communication systems has paved the way for an increase in police misconduct. Says Zoghbi Douzi: “The latter confiscate the telephones of suspected individuals in efforts to establish their guilt.”

Demonstration for the legalization of cannabis. Tunis, February 2021. Credit: Malek Khemiri.

She continues: “We are trying to ensure the presence of a lawyer during police custody, not only as a means of enforcing ordinary procedures, but also so that we can protect people arrested from potential police misconduct during custody. We also want to prevent the searching of their telephones.” Other forms of misconduct also take place during police custody.

We have seen victims of profiling accused of selling cannabis, although they had only been found with a few joints in their packet of cigarettes. These individuals were imputed to have been in possession of quantities of cannabis confiscated on previous [unrelated] occasions.”

Customs did not respond to Nawaat’s request for information regarding the quantity of cannabis confiscated annually.

As per Law 52 promulgated under the Ben Ali regime, the possession and use of narcotics is punishable by a minimum sentence of one year imprisonment. This text was applied even after the revolution, spurring a movement in favor of its abrogation.

It wasn’t until 2017 that Law 52 was partially reformed. Its amendment enabled judicial officials to take into consideration attenuating circumstances, which was not the case in the text’s original version. Such discretionary authority means that magistrates are able to potentially suspend or replace a prison sentence with a fine. The goal is to avoid incarceration and its damaging effects on the future of those accused of drug use.

Under Tunisia’s current president, the police state appears to be reemerging. President Kais Saied has repeatedly evoked the need to combat the use and trafficking of narcotics. Both Wael Zarrouk and Nawres Zoghbi Douzi attribute this return to repression to the president’s position on drug use.

During an interview with Interior Minister Kamel Fekih on October 26, Saied insisted on the need to combat drug trafficking, and pressed for expanding police patrol units across the country. That call was reiterated on November 6 during his meeting with the same minister, as well as Hassine Gharbi, Commander of the National Guard, and Mourad Saidane, Director General of National Security.

Kais Saied meets with Interior Minister Kamel Fekih, Commander of the National Guard Hassine Gharbi, and Director General of National Security Mourad Saidane. Carthage Palace, November 6, 2023. Credit: Office of the President.

Fighting crime is always the pretext for persecuting drug users. They are always the ones to pay the price. But have any of the country’s big dealers been arrested?” Zarrouk asks.

Youth, primary victims of repression

Judicial officials also have an active role to play in the government’s policy of repression. Following the amendment of Law 52 in 2017, Zoghbi Douzi points out, magistrates became “more lenient” with cannabis users—particularly high school and university students—in how the  modified legal text was applied.

This leniency, however, is no longer. Especially among public prosecutors who systematically place suspects in pre-trial detention, Zoghbi Douzi adds.

And yet the law is clear. According to article 84 of the Penal Code, pre-trial detention is an “exceptional” measure which must be justified on the basis of explicit requirements listed under article 85 of the same text. In practice, these requirements are not taken into consideration before the accused find themselves on remand.

For youth in particular, prison serves more as a tool of oppression than a mechanism of crime prevention. “In leaving young people to languish in crowded jail cells, we are destroying their futures. Far from serving as rehabilitation centers, our prisons are more like learning centers for all kinds of criminal activity,” Zoghbi Douzi remarks.

Kais Saied prides himself on his rapport with Tunisian youth, a demographic which helped bring him to power. His promises to them—of a decent life safeguarded from injustices and marginalization—have proven to be deceitful. Given the significant number of cannabis users among the country’s youth, the latter are the primary victims of President Saied’s policy of repression.

The prevalence of cannabis use among youth between the ages of 15 and 17 was 1.5% in 2013. This percentage grew to 7.9% in 2021, according to a national survey by MedSPAD III. Published in 2023, this study covered 7,565 high school students in public and private institutions across the country’s 24 governorates. But these numbers do not reflect the full amplitude of cannabis use, a former neighborhood dealer informs Nawaat. Indeed, demand for this substance seems to hint at even more widespread use.

I would sell 25 grams in a single day,” the dealer told us, noting that cannabis is not at all difficult to obtain. “It’s like shopping at the supermarket; you buy what you need and go.” For 25 grams, our interlocutor reported that he would pay about 750 dinars and make over a thousand. This small-scale dealer got into selling cannabis in order to save what he needed to leave the country. Neither the drug’s selling price nor composition are consistent, he told Nawaat.

Regulating product composition

While drug use is on the rise for all substances, cannabis, for those who argue in favor of decriminalization, must not be considered on equal footing with other so-called hard drugs. “Using cannabis doesn’t make you steal or commit hold-ups. This idea distorts how we approach this issue,” says Zarrouk.

Decriminalizing cannabis use would result in better regulation of its composition, Zarrouk argues, and could also help to stifle smuggling networks.

President of the Tunisian Addictology Group (STADD) Doctor Nabil Ben Salah heartily agrees. For Ben Salah, decriminalization must be accompanied by a series of measures which include access to care for those who struggle with addiction. Regulating the purity of cannabis sold is another necessary measure. Currently, all kinds of substances are sold which contain chemical components; the latter serve to increase the weight of a given substance so that it can be sold at a higher price. “But the option of decriminalization does not seem to apply in the present context. The state is struggling to control the distribution circuits and use of products like tobacco and alcohol that are sold legally,” Ben Salah explains.

For the moment, the prevailing approach is one of repression, and debates around the issue as it relates to public health and social peace are no longer a focus of public attention. In the meantime, the informal cannabis industry is thriving, as the number of users continues to rise. Long-time calls to pull this question onto the table for discussion are fading into the background, as the topic of decriminalization—much like other topics of social relevance—have been sidelined as secondary issues.

Fear has returned. People are becoming more reluctant to speak out. This is understandable in a context where people are arrested on the basis of Decree-law 54 for having expressed an opinion,” Zarrouk remarks.