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Strict Tunisian Drug Laws Put Students in Jail

TUNIS—Tunisian youth have had a tough time since the revolution. Many of them went from being inspired about their new-found freedom to being depressed about being unemployed. University enrollment is no sure path to a job. Now university students have another problem—illegal drugs and the prison sentences that come when they are caught using them.

“I did not know that the zatlah (cannabis) abuse is forbidden by law and that it can lead to a prison sentence,” said Sanaa, a first-year student at the Faculty of Science. “My friends told me that marijuana would have a different [penalty] from heroin, and I believed them. Thus I lost my future.”

Two months ago, Tunisian police arrested five university students, including Sanaa and another female student, on charges of drug use. Some students denied using drugs, but laboratory tests found traces of the drugs in their blood. The students were sentenced to one year in prison.

“The law is unjust and is destroying the future of those youths,” said a parent of one of the students, who asked to remain anonymous. “They are still young and need care and education. Drug peddlers must be punished, not the students.”

According to Tunisian law, anyone who consumes a narcotic plant or other illegal substance is punishable by one to five years in prison, and pays a fine of about 1,000-3,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,500). In addition, anyone who even frequents a place where drug abusers meet and share drugs, a place similar to a “crack house” in the West, will be punished by six months to three years of imprisonment and a fine of 1,000-5,000 TND ($2,500).

“University administrations and civil society organizations have to move to raise awareness and end this unjust law that is destroying students’ futures and keeping them away from school,” said Ghazi Mrabet, a lawyer for some of the recently arrested students. He said those students would not be able to resume their studies or find jobs later after having been to prison. Other students and professors will steer clear of them because of the social stigma of having been imprisoned, and employers are unlikely to hire someone who has done jail time.

In March of 2014, a group of artists, lawyers, doctors and civil activists started a campaign calling for the amendment of laws related to drug abuse, and for the replacement of jail penalties with rehabilitation. The campaign was called “Prisoner 52” in reference to Law 52, a drug-abuse law issued in 1992 that has remained unchanged for 24 years.

Since 2011, drug abuse has increased substantially in Tunisia, especially among young people. About 57 percent of adolescents and young adults between the ages of 13 and 18 abuse drugs, and as do 36 percent of those 18 to 25 years old, according to a study released last year by the Department of Criminal Science of Tunisia’s governmental Legislative and Judicial Studies Center.

“All the official figures push toward revising the law, and replacing the imprisonment sentence for a drug abuser with psychological rehabilitation and sentences of public service,” said Mrabet.

The causes behind drug abuse among Tunisian youth vary. “Frustration, lack of vision of a better future because of unemployment, as well as the difficulty of engaging in the labor market are pushing many young people to addiction in search for moments of imaginary happiness,” said Habib Tre’ah, a physician specialized in psychology, sociology and addiction treatment.

Five years after the revolution, unemployment appears to be an insoluble problem in Tunisia. In 2015, the number of unemployed was about 420,000 people, including 240,000 university graduates, with the most affected age group being those between the ages of of 15 and 19, according Tunisia’s Ministry of Employment. (See related article: Without Jobs, Dignity Eludes Many Tunisian Youth).

Some students believe that the drug abuse has roots in their academic life.

“Many students are suffering from difficult financial conditions, the lack of university housing, and the lack of university scholarships,” said Maath Al-Hajari, a master’s degree student who knew some of the students who were sentenced to prison. “ All of these factors push many students to try to find moments of pleasure through drugs.” Hajari said that his jailed colleagues never behaved badly at the university.

“The abuse of cannabis is widespread among students and there is no movement on campus to raise awareness about its drawbacks and the punishment for abusing it,” he said.

Amani Sassi, a law student, agrees with Al-Hajari. “Professors and university administration do not have any role to educate or raise awareness of students,” he said. “It is not the first time that students are arrested on charges of drug abuse, and it will not be the last.” Addiction is not the only negative phenomenon students suffer from, she said.

“Many reports revealed that a large number of university students are involved in terrorist groups,” she said. “There is no real interest in the youth. Most of us are frustrated and pessimistic.”

Marijuana is the most commonly consumed narcotic substance, forming about 92 percent of the abuse, according to a government study, followed by cocaine and heroin. Marijuana is cheap, ranging in price from $2 to $20 for chunks of hashish that are often broken up into handmade cigarettes.

“I admitted consuming cannabis when interrogated,” said Ahmed, one of the imprisoned students. “I did not know that it is legally prohibited because it is cheap and very available.” He explained that he smoked marijuana out of his desire to overcome his difficult life. “I was in need of something to help me accept my reality and give me happiness, even if for just a few moments,” he said.

The Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi had promised, during his election campaign, to ease the penalties for using marijuana, in order to help Tunisian youth. But although the Ministry of Justice has drafted a modified version of the law, the Assembly of Representatives has not approved it.

“The situation is getting worse, and the policy of punishment is not useful,” said Mrabet. “We should raise awareness and change the law.”
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