“WHEN we think about our future, our dreams, we have nothing,” says a young man in Sidi Bouzid. Life in the Tunisian town that launched the Arab spring has barely changed since the country’s old dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted in 2011. Unemployment is even higher nationally than before the uprising. Young people are worst-off, which helps explain why an alarming number join jihadist groups. The frustration drives others, including this young man, to use zatla, the local name for cannabis.
Using cannabis in Tunisia, though, is risky. Under the country’s “Law 52”, anyone caught using or in possession of the drug receives a minimum sentence of one year in prison. Repeat offenders get up to five years. Judges have no discretion to consider the circumstances or to recommend other punishments. The young man says most of his friends have been locked up for getting high.
So it goes in much of the Middle East and north Africa, where the law often lumps pot in with harder drugs. In many countries possession of a single joint can lead to jail. But some governments are acknowledging the harmful effects of their policies and thinking about reform.
The region’s harsh laws date back to the 18th century, when a French army officer wrote that “the mass of [Egypt’s] male population is in a perpetual state of stupor!” Napoleon banned hashish in Egypt. More recent authoritarians have used drug laws as a way to keep young people in line (or in jail). Clerics provide cover, citing objections to intoxicants in the Koran.
Despite the perpetual crackdown, cannabis is still widely used. Official statistics are murky, but tokers and dealers are easy to find in most countries. Part of the reason is that cannabis is produced nearby. Morocco is the world’s top supplier. Lebanon is another big producer. Cannabis from South Asia also passes through on its way to Europe.
The combination of heavy use and harsh laws has resulted in overcrowded prisons. In Tunisia, for example, drug offenders make up about 28% of the prison population. Most are in for using cannabis. Upon release, their criminal record makes it nearly impossible to get a job.
Tunisia is now rethinking its policies. A draft law would abolish prison terms for first- and second-time offenders caught with cannabis for personal use. Judges could impose alternative punishments on repeat offenders; more emphasis would be placed on treatment. The measure is vague and, say critics, could lead to more abuse. Anyway, it is stalled in parliament. But in March the national security council moved to keep some offenders out of jail.
The Moroccan authorities look at the issue from the other direction. Though the government bans the production of cannabis, its growth is tolerated in the Rif, a northern region that supplies Europe. “Travel around in some areas and you see the plants all over the place,” says Tom Blickman of the Transnational Institute, a research group. Ironically, a draft law that would legalise cannabis production countrywide for medical and industrial uses has worried the region’s growers. They fear that rich landowners or the government, which would collect the entire crop, could push them out of business.
Growers in the Rif may not like the proposal (which is also stalled), but the status quo is hardly better. Cannabis has not enriched them, as most of the profits go to traffickers—and corrupt officials. Nearly 50,000 growers have arrest warrants hanging over their heads, says Mr Blickman. Many pay bribes to avoid arrest. In other countries that tolerate cannabis, there is always the fear of a crackdown. Officials are not known for being fair. That is yet another reason why people turn to drugs.