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Tunisia Parliament Approves Slight Deviation from Repressive Drug Laws

The Parliament of Tunisia has adopted an amendment to the national drug legislation which is set to reduce the number of people being imprisoned for possession offences.

Until now, Tunisia's notorious drug legislation – Law 52 – had stipulated that someone found in possession of any quantity of any illegal drug must be punished with a mandatory minimum sentence of one year imprisonment. This highly repressive measure – which was introduced in 1992 by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the now-deposed president of Tunisia – has now been somewhat scaled back.

On April 25, the Tunisian parliament passed an amendment to give courts discretion when sentencing an individual for their first drug offence. The amendment was overwhelmingly supported in parliament, with 133 of the 140 parliamentarians present voting in favour of its implementation.

This small step away from Tunisia’s harsh drug policy is only a temporary measure, according to Minister of Justice, Ghazi Jeribi. It will eventually be replaced with a “comprehensive” revision of Law 52, he has said.

Since 1992, Law 52 has led to the mass incarceration of thousands of Tunisians, particularly young people, for non-violent drug offences. In December 2015, 7,451 people were in prison for drug offences, of which around 70 per cent were incarcerated for cannabis use or possession.

While the new amendment may reduce this figure in the long-term, critics says that it does not go far enough in countering the harms of the current approach.

Amna Guellali, Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch, told TalkingDrugs that while the amendment is an improvement, it is insufficient at reducing the repression of Law 52. “For the people arrested for a second time and more [for drug offences], the judge is still obliged to apply the maximum sentence, which is 5 years”, she said.

Despite the reform, she argues, Law 52 will continue to fail at reducing the rates and harms of problematic drug use. “Drug policies in Tunisia are exclusively turned towards punishing consumers”, she described, “[and] they don’t contain any measure or vision about prevention, treatment, [or] health policies”.

As Tunisian authorities have indicated plans to reform Law 52 again in the future, it is possible that public health will be taken more firmly into consideration. However, until more detail is provided on this, it is unclear how much longer that Tunisians will face long prisons sentences for minor drug offences.

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