Photo by Rex Medlin

Like The US, Tunisia’s Cannabis Prohibition is Causing a Host of Societal Issues. Here’s Why Legalization Can Solve Them.

rapper’s arrest in Tunisia has revitalized the country’s legalization debate.

Musician ALA was arrested in May for possession of cannabis with the intent to distribute. His incarceration subsequently led to widespread protests in the streets of the North African country, per Al-Monitor.

Tunisia, following suit with the majority of North African and Middle Eastern countries, doles out hefty prison sentences and fines for possession or use of cannabis. Tunisia’s Law 52, one of the world’s strictest drug policies when it was enacted in 2015, has resulted in cannabis users or dealers accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s prison population.

Despite these stringent laws on the books today, cannabis has a long and storied history in the Middle East and North Africa. Cannabis, more commonly known as hashish in the region, has been referenced in historical and religious texts for hundreds of years. One of the most prominent references to hashish comes from the mysterious and fabled Assassins, a group of Shi’a Muslims of the Nizari Isma’ili sect who cemented their legend during the early Crusade years (1090–1275). The legend, attributed to famed Italian explorer Marco Polo, purports that members of the order would smoke hashish before pledging allegiance to the cause and carrying out public assassinations.

The drug, however, was more commonly associated with less militaristic causes. Certain groups of Sufi Muslims utilized the drug to achieve a heightened state. Scientists, explorers, and philosophers took note of many cultivation efforts and regular use by the general population of places like Egypt during the 12th century.

Nowadays, however, the drug carries a stigma, not unlike those seen in Western countries. The origins of much of the global criminalization and stigmatization of cannabis are found in the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, which established the general consensus surrounding cannabis, as well as other drugs.

Regardless of any societal implications, drug use in general is becoming more common amongst Tunisia’s youth. A study carried out in 2017 showed that 31% of high school students had tried a drug at least once in their life, up from 25% in 2013.

While most experts agree that properly-cultivated Cannabis is relatively harmless to its user’s overall health, the same cannot be said for much of the illicit product. There have been several reports that much of the cannabis being sold on the streets of Tunisia is not safe for any kind of consumption, and has the potential to cause a host of medical issues.

“It’s a public health crisis,” says Wahib Mkadmi, a representative of the Coalition For The Legalization of Cannabis(COLEC). “Much of the cannabis that you find being sold on Tunisia’s streets have been found to be laced with chemicals, and sometimes even fecal matter.”

As public health is being threatened by the illicit product, Mkadmi also points to those providing cannabis as another major threat to Tunisia’s stability. “Funds from many of these black market transactions have been traced to terrorist organizations,” Mkadmi tells Via News.

There is a long history of minor drug trafficking instances between Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. After the Arab Spring shook up the political landscape of North Africa, however, authorities are having a much harder time controlling their border, a fact that is being taken advantage of by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and groups based in the Sahara.

Ironically enough, legalization of cannabis could provide solutions to all of these issues. Not only that, but it might be the boost that Tunisia’s economy is in desperate need of.

“The legalization of cannabis would be an emergency care package to the economy,” says Wahib, “through regulation, we could address many of the concerns and funding necessities in Tunisia.”

Wahib insists that the newfound funds from legalization would ideally be directed at three specific sectors: Education, Youth and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Health. Through investments in education and Youth and Social Affairs, many of the afflictions brought about by the influx of drug use amongst Tunisian youth could be addressed. Significant investments to the Ministry of Health would allow Tunisia to care for drug abusers and addicts, as the country currently only has two rehab centers to service its population of nearly 12 million people.

Decriminalization — and eventually, legalization — would also help to ease Tunisia’s bloated prison population. Thousands of Tunisia’s prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for minor cannabis-related offenses. Even in the age of COVID-19 and after promises to ease strict drug laws, the prison population continues to grow.

“The policing approach needs to change,” says Wahib, “They are targeting a symptom rather than the disease itself.”

Despite the obvious benefits, the movement for legalization is not without its opponents.

“Tunisia is a generally religious, conservative society. Any kind of psychoactives are prohibited in Islam, though there have been several Imams who have insisted that cannabis does not fall into that category because you retain your judgement,” says Wahib, “Although, a lot of the opposition is universal and follows suit with the global opinion on cannabis.”

With a plurality of challenges being presented to Arab countries and economies due to COVID-19, however, many Middle Eastern and North African countries are seeing the benefits of easing restrictions on hemp and cannabis products. In April, amidst widespread discord due to the pandemic and preexisting economic instability and resulting protests, Lebanon became the first Arab nation to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Though the vote faced opposition from Hezbollah and saw moral reservations from other members of parliament, the economic benefits of allowing cultivation proved too beneficial to pass up. In January of 2019, President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called for an increase in the growth of hemp for industrial use. Hemp, a form of the Cannabis plant used exclusively to create surprisingly sturdy textiles, building materials, and papers, has long been grown in Turkey. The widespread growth had been discouraged, however, by the United States.

While the new legislation provides opportunities for many farmers, the growth of cannabis has been a practice for countless cultures and sub regions. Morocco’s Berbers in the Rif mountain region are one of the world’s largest suppliers of cannabis, despite cultivation and consumption of the drug being illegal. Hashish and Kif, a mixture of tobacco and cannabis, has attracted cannabis enthusiasts from all over the world for decades.

Yet, continued stigmatization of cannabis and its’ users hinders the efforts of legalization activists. Despite increasing acceptance and medical research into practical uses for the drugs, age-old stereotypes about cannabis and those who use it persist. These stereotypes, Wahib says, will fade.

“We are arguing with facts and evidence-based research. The debate has been sparked, and we are seeing a change in the public’s opinion of cannabis.”

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Nathan Matsko

Assistant Editor at Via News. Covering Human Rights and under-reported stories out of the Middle East & North Africa.