Pubdate: Wed, 07 May 2014
Source: Malay Mail (Malaysia)
Copyright: 2014 The Malay Mail


TUNIS, May 7 - 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 (or 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 Ghazi Mrabet, Al Sajin 52's lawyer, 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. - AFP
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