After 30-Year Jail Sentence for Cannabis Users, Some Demand Decriminalization

Demonstrators in front of the National Theater in downtown Tunis on February 6, 2021. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

A series of protests which began on January 15 in various cities and neighborhoods across the country have largely focused on economic inequality and police repression. But recently, some of those protesting have revived an old demand of decriminalizing cannabis usage. One event appears to have pushed some to take up this demand again with renewed visibility in the streets and on social media: on January 21, 2021 a judge in El Kef handed out 30-year jail sentences to three young men for cannabis consumption in a public place.

Law 52 passed in 1992 criminalizes more than 130 narcotics from cocaine to cannabis with no apparent distinctions made between the substances.

According to a statement by Faouzi Dhaouadi, the State’s assistant prosecutor at El Kef’s Court of First Instance, the as-yet unnamed individuals who were sentenced had already been in pretrial detention for a year and half and received the maximum sentence under article 11 of Law 52 because they were in a sports stadium—a circumstance that allows a judge to add 20 years to the five for consumption and five for possession covered in other articles of the law. An appeal scheduled to take place on February 16 was postponed to March 9.

Demonstrators in front of the National Theater in downtown Tunis on February 6, 2021. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

Meshkal spoke with several people who participated in recent protests in downtown Tunis who were calling for authorities to not enforce Law 52.

“People from poorer backgrounds are definitely more singled out through this law, because if you put them in jail, they will not ask for employment,” said 25-year old cannabis user Fatma (not her real name).

Fatma said she began using cannabis for therapeutic reasons about five years ago.

“I just use it to feel better and sleep better,” she said.

As of late 2015, a Human Rights Watch report found that about 5200 out of 7451 people in jail for drug-related offences were there for using or possessing cannabis. The same report noted that those 7451 people in jail for drug-related offenses represented 28 percent of the country’s total prison population, and of them 98 percent were men.

“My fear has certainly gotten bigger with the current situation… since they [the police] hunted down the person whose picture was taken while rolling a joint in a protest, then it definitely means that they are targeting those people,” Fatma said.

Meanwhile, Fatma believes that it’s hypocritical for police to arrest young men for cannabis usage because she thinks that there are police who also use cannabis.

Treating Cannabis Users as Criminals

Mohamed (not his real name) is 25 and demonstrated in downtown Tunis on January 30 against Law 52. He agreed to an interview with Meshkal, but he asked to meet somewhere far away from downtown as he feared being arrested. In the week following the January 30 downtown Tunis protest to decriminalize cannabis, several participants in the protest were arrested. Some activists described these arrests as “kidnapping” as they were conducted without warning and in the street by plainclothes police officers. There was also a cyberbullying campaign on Facebook against protesters that included homophobic slurs.

Mohamed, an amateur musician, says he uses cannabis to inspire him artistically, as well as to treat migraines, relax, and help when he feels sad.

“I am not a criminal,” Mohamed told Meshkal, yet he said he has been made to feel like one.

“I ask myself: why do I, as person who is not a criminal, feel scared of cops? When I bump into a cop on the street, I feel insecure in my country just because I am smoking… I always tried to be an active citizen whether it’s through saying no, voting, working or doing whatever,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed said he was once detained on suspicion of cannabis consumption, but a urine test came out negative and he was released while a friend he was arrested with paid a bribe to be released.

Having personally witnessed what he said was a bribe, Mohamed thinks that cannabis laws are only really enforced on those too poor to pay such bribes.

“I know if I get arrested and I have 1000 dinars on me, for sure if I give the cop 500 dinars he will let me go. However, if I am the son of a popular neighborhood with no cent on me and living under 18 percent unemployment and a 19 percent tax rate…then I know for sure that when I fall [i.e. get arrested for possession or consumption], I will automatically go to jail,” Mohamed said.

Shortly after the interview with Meshkal on February 4, Mohamed said someone who identified themselves as police called his phone, harassed him and asked him to provide information on people he knows are cannabis users.

An Opportunity to Decriminalize Cannabis

Demonstrations calling for the decriminalization of cannabis have seen hundreds show up in recent weeks—especially at a downtown Tunis protest on January 30 and another Tunis protest that splintered off from the February 6 demonstrations marking the anniversary of assassinated leftist politician Chokri Belaid. The high attendance at these protests may stem in part from widespread anger at the 30-year jail sentence in El Kef.  However, some of the recent street activism may be traced to planning going back even further, to six months ago, according to one organizer.

Aymen Rezgui is an activist and a journalist. He is also a member of two collectives that advocate for decriminalizing of cannabis: the El Kef Youth Support Committee and the “Cannabis Liberation Front” (FLC by its French acronym), a coalition of collectives and individuals who have been lobbying for decriminalizing cannabis which was formed in August 2020.

The El Kef Youth Support Committee was set up to support the three people who were sentenced to 30 years in prison and a fourth person with special needs who was sentenced to five years in prison but was released due to medical concern, according to Rezgui.

Civil society activism was successful in 2017 when Parliament passed an amendment to Law 52 through Law 39, issued on May 8, 2017. The amendment gave judges more discretion for shorter sentences in cases where the suspect was a first-time user, had only participated in personal consumption of cannabis, and had no prior criminal records.

But today, Rezgui and other activists don’t want to amend Law 52; they want authorities to stop enforcing it altogether.

Talking to Meshkal about the history of the anti-Law 52 movement in Tunisia, Rezgui explained that different people from different movements started gathering six months ago to plan actions and outline a list of demands regarding this issue, and that lead to the creation of Cannabis Liberation Front.

“We believe that Law 52 is a political card that the system has, to enable its worst face, which is the cop in the street, to use it to humiliate young people… we believe that Law 52 is a sword put to young people’s throats.” Rezgui told Meshkal.

According to Rezgui, Law 52 allows authorities to detain dissidents and protesters on grounds that don’t appear to be political.

“We have young people who went out to protest against government policies but then found themselves detained for Law 52,” Rezgui explained.

While abrogating the law entirely does not appear to be part of recent discussions, Rezgui sees another possibility that could have the same effect: getting authorities to stop enforcing the law. Rezgui sees a precedence here like article 35 of Law number 147 passed in 1959, which prohibits the sale of alcohol to Muslims; that law is still technically on the books but is no longer enforced.

Rezgui also sees the court decision in El Kef as bringing momentum to their cause.

“When the 30 year ruling came out regarding the case of El Kef, public opinion was shaken, even among those who perceive the cause as none of their concern,” Rezgui said.

Meanwhile, on February 13, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi met with a number of civil society representatives to discuss Law 52.

Mechichi stressed, according to an official statement, the need to deal with the issue from “a health perspective” and expressed his “full conviction of the need to break with the current deterrent [penal] system.”

On February 2, 2021, one Member of Parliament, Olfa Terras, proposed an amendment to Law 52 that would decrease penalties for consumption of cannabis and significantly increase them for those selling the drug. Meshkal reached out to Ms. Terras for comment but received no reply.

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this article.