Joint democracy

Why decriminalising soft drug consumption in Tunisia would be a step towards a better democracy.

The Tunisian National Security Council, convoked by Tunisian president Béji Caid Essebsi in Carthage on 15th March 2017, talked about terrorism and national security, but also about joints. Indeed, the agenda of the meeting included the reform of Law 52, a law that imposes a minimum mandatory sentence of one year for the consumption or possession of any drug. In the case of repeated offences, the same law imposes a minimum mandatory sentence of five years. Essebsi promised the revision of Law 52 during his electoral campaign in 2014. More than two years later, the National Security Council has decided to give judges the possibility to reduce the jail time with consideration of mitigating factors. Parliament is still expected to further discuss a wider reform of the law.

This, however, may not be enough for the large section of the Tunisian public that has mobilised against Law 52. Under the hashtags “#Baddel52” (“change Law 52”) and “الحبس_لا” (“no to prison”) citizens and public figures are calling for the the immediate repeal of Law 52.

A famous journalist admitted on TV to having smoked “zatla”, the Tunisian word for cannabis, and Human Rights Watch, Lawyers Without Borders, and the Réseau d’observation de la justice tunisienne sent a joint letter to the Tunisian Parliament asking to repeal Law 52, as its implementation often results in human rights violations. While there may be political forces defending law 52, the opposition to the extreme rigidity of this law seems to exist across the political spectrum, as even members of the Islamist party Ennahdha have called for its repeal.

The public mobilisation against Law 52 can be explained by its numbers. According to Tunisia’s Minister of Justice, Ghazi Jeribi,  Law 52 has led to the imprisonment of more than 6,500 people in 2016 alone, almost 30% of the total prisoner population. This shows that Law 52 has failed as a deterrent. Furthermore, recidivism remains high: more than half of those arrested continue to consume drugs. Of those who find themselves in Tunisia’s prisons for drug consumption or possession, approximately 70% consumed or possessed cannabis. In fact, Law 52 makes no difference between soft and hard drugs. As a result, it mostly targets young people whose studies and personal development are interrupted by a jail sentence that stains their reputation, often excluding them from already scarce employment opportunities. Like repressive approaches elsewhere in the world, this law seems to have failed to tackle drug consumption.

But the significance of Law 52 goes far beyond the issue of drug consumption. Law 52 was promulgated in 1992 by Ben Ali, allegedly to save Tunisia’s international image after his brother, Habib Ben Ali, was condemned in absentia by a Parisian court to a 10-year prison sentence for his involvement in the so-called “couscous connection”, an international drug trafficking network centred in Tunisia. Its origin is thus emblematic of a regime that was ready to save its international image at any cost to its citizens.

Since 1992, the implementation of Law 52 has gone hand in hand with the police abuses that characterised Ben Ali’s regime and that have not fully disappeared in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Many are testimonies by young Tunisians who report being humiliated and subjected to violence by police forces after having been stopped in accordance with Law 52, some having been arrested despite not having consumed or possessed drugs at all (but simply after having participated in political activity).

The continued existence of Law 52 is a reflection of the ancient regime and of youth grievances that persist in today’s Tunisia. Indeed, despite the central role played by the youth in the 2011 revolution, Tunisian youth is still waiting for many answers to their needs and demands, some of which have not changed since 2011. Youth unemployment continues to grow, and recreational and cultural activities that would enable young Tunisians to engage themselves positively are often lacking. It is in popular neighbourhoods, where youth unemployment tends to be high, that cannabis is particularly consumed.

During one of Thraedable’s projects in Tunisia, I visited one of these neighbourhoods in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city. Entering the neighbourhood of Rbadh, the urban landscape changes in a blink of an eye: suddenly the roads become filled with garbage and the houses get older and uglier. Samy*, my guide who lives in Rbadh, points at a games room telling me that “that is all we have for the youth here”.  According to him, the young people of Rbadh grow up in a place of crime and drugs, where consuming (and at times selling) cannabis is normalised. At the same time, (violent) interaction with the police is an everyday experience.  The old police vans that date back from Ben Ali’s time are colloquially called “coffins”, because “when you come out you cannot walk as you did before”. Samy himself spent time in prison for minor offences, as many of the people of his neighbourhood, some of whom because of Law 52.

When these young people are detained they find themselves in overcrowded prisons, some of which are filled up to 150% capacity. Samy recounts having to share a bed with two other inmates: one had killed his wife; the other had killed four men. Indeed, there is no distinction between first offenders and long-term prisoners, and young people imprisoned for having smoked a joint live in close contact with all kinds of criminals. These also include people imprisoned on charges of terrorism, who see prisons as a fertile recruitment pool of young detainees. After a year of prison many are left with a sense of injustice and deep frustration. Coupled with the added difficulty of finding a job after having been to prison and the lack of activities for the youth, this frustration is often channelled into violent or criminal behaviour. Being imprisoned for a joint, then, can initiate a cycle that ruins the future of young Tunisians: as Samy puts it, “prisons only create criminals”.

Repealing Law 52 could then be a small step to breaking this cycle of broken futures. It would help reduce the overcrowding of prisons. It could be a step towards reforming other laws that limit individual liberties, and towards seeing young Tunisians as citizens to respect and engage with rather than criminals to control. This should be accompanied by the creation of opportunities for positive youth engagement through cultural activities in the heart of the most marginalised neighbourhoods. As Samy tells me, the revolution may have happened in Carthage (the headquarters of state institutions) but for it to be real to the everyday young Tunisian, the revolution needs to happen in places like Rbadh. Repealing Law 52 would be a good start to bringing the revolution there.
*The name has been changed to protect the person’s identity.

This article was originally published on Thraedable.

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Cristina Orsini

Cristina Orsini is the co-founder of Thraedable, a social enterprise with the mission to give voice to marginalised groups through its collaborative clothing lines and online magazine. She studied international affairs in Amsterdam and in Paris, and she is now a nomad with a passion for human rights, the MENA region, cycling, and cooking.
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