Zatla Blues

Drug use in Tunisia is on the rise, especially among youths. In a society undergoing great change, many see zatla (cannabis) as representing an aspect of the struggle for freedom.

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Zatla Blues

Drug use is rising sharply in Tunisia, particularly among youth, with cannabis—zatla in local dialect—being the drug of popular choice. Research done by the Tunisian Association for the Prevention of Drug Addiction (ATUPRET) holds that 70 percent of the users have a substance-dependency of some sort, and that nearly half of school students between the ages of 15 and 17 have tried drugs. According to ATUPRET, a main cause of this increase is the easy availability of drugs caused by a rise in smuggling, as security along desert border regions declines. Tunisia is at the crossroads of a common drug-route from Morocco, through Algeria to Libya.

Tunisia’s approach to drug users has traditionally been very harsh. A 1992 narcotics law remains in place, and threatens anyone in possession of, or who has used, an illegal drug with from one to five years in prison, or fines up to €1,380 (US$1,850). Under the Ben Ali regime, the anti-drugs law was used as an instrument of oppression. Police abuse in drugs cases was common, and usual procedural formalities were violated. And this situation still holds. Drugs legislation affects mainly young people—the age of those in jail on drug offences is mostly between 18 and 35. It impacts a significant proportion of Tunisian society (almost a third of all prisoners are being held on drug offences), and one that is at the core of the movement for political change.

Recent years have seen a severe crackdown on drug users and smugglers. There have been reports of physical abuse of drugs users in prison, and of corruption among those supposedly enforcing the law, yet are themselves profiting from the drug trade.

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