Tunisia The Tunisian Republic is ideally located for the purposes of trafficking cannabis and hashish. It is situated very near both to Morocco, the world’s largest producer of hashish, and the southern coast of Europe—the gateway to the world’s largest consumer market for drugs. In recent years, political instability has allowed trafficking to thrive.
The Tunisian Republic is ideally located for the purposes of trafficking cannabis and hashish. It is situated very near both to Morocco, the world’s largest producer of hashish, and the southern coast of Europe—the gateway to the world’s largest consumer market for drugs. In recent years, political instability has allowed trafficking to thrive.
The modern cannabis trade in Tunisia
Tunisia occupies a crucial position on overland and sea trafficking routes. A vast quantity of hashish and cannabis is smuggled via Algeria from Morocco, and in recent years, increasing quantities of cannabis from sub-Saharan African countries have been arriving through the southern border with Libya. As well as this, European traffickers are now smuggling cocaine and heroin into the country in increasing amounts.
Since the 2010-2011 uprising against the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, along with the disruption caused by the war in Libya, cross-border trafficking has been facilitated. Illicit goods have been a source of income for a significant proportion of the border population of Tunisia for many years, but the increase in new and more dangerous goods, such as heroin, cocaine and arms (most of which enter the country from Libya), is of great concern to Tunisian authorities.
The long and porous northern stretches of the Tunisian-Algerian border are currently experiencing an uptrend in trafficking of cannabis and small arms. The central Tunisian authorities are concerned that increased trafficking is enabling the operations of militant jihadist groups in the region, as well as providing ample opportunities for agents of the border authorities to become corrupted.
Tunisian cannabis policies
Tunisia is actively attempting to reduce trafficking of cannabis and other drugs, in cooperation with Algeria and Libya, by sharing intelligence, liaising on matters of cross-border security, and monitoring the activities of groups suspected to be involved in organised crime. According to a statement made in December 2013 by Libya’s economy minister, a free trade zone on the Tunisian-Libyan border will be created this year. It is hoped that this will reduce smuggling by streamlining the flow of goods and improving inspection and detection rates.
Control of the desert border regions is difficult to achieve, due to its length, porosity and rugged, unforgiving terrain. Due to this, assessing the full extent of the trade is all but impossible. The Tunisian authorities hope to upgrade their limited resources and technology in order to combat the increasingly sophisticated traffickers, who are well-funded and often heavily armed.
Cannabis law in Tunisia
Tunisia’s approach to drug users and addicts has traditionally been very harsh, to the point that a well-defined protest movement is becoming established. The 1992 law on narcotics trafficking states that an individual found in possession or to have consumed illegal drugs risks between one and five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,000-3,000 Tunisian dinar (around €460-€1380). One years’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,000 dinar is the mandatory minimum penalty.
Urine tests are random and arbitrary. The police may hold anyone suspected of drug use and demand that a urine test be performed; withholding consent is not an option. Many of the metabolites of cannabis remain in the blood and urine for weeks after consumption; the law subjects thousands of occasional users to harsh and potentially life-altering consequences.
For more serious offences such as sale, cultivation and trafficking, punishments can range from 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment plus a fine of 20,000 to 100,000 dinars. Tunisia has not yet officially abolished the death penalty, but has not carried out an execution since 1991; in any case, drug trafficking is not one of the twenty-one crimes that are subject to it.
The tragic case of Walid Denguir
In October 2013 a 32-year old man, Walid Denguir, was beaten to death while in the custody of police in the capital Tunis. Graphic photographs of his caved-in skull were posted on several social media sites—although police later claimed the injuries shown were caused during the autopsy. His injuries were said to resemble the ‘roasted chicken’ position, a form of torture common to the Ben Ali era.
The Interior Ministry issued a statement (since taken down) referring to the ‘overuse of power exerted on him during the interrogation that led to his death’. However, security forces have since stated (and Tunisian media has written) that the coroner’s report gave the cause of death as the ‘impact of eating an extra dose of zatla’—the local term for hashish—and that the security forces were not responsible for the young man’s death.
The family of the young man, as well as a growing segment of Tunisian society, are furious at the findings, and the controversy has sparked an internal investigation.
Other notable cannabis arrests in Tunisia
The ousted leader of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was convicted of possession of hashish with intent to distribute and sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment in absentia after he fled to Saudi Arabia in 2011, and his hastily-abandoned presidential palace raided and searched. It is believed that 2kg of ‘mediocre’ hashish was discovered, along with money, diamonds, and illegal weapons.
A popular rap artist, Ahmed Laabidi (who goes by the stage name of Kafon) has been imprisoned since June 2013 for possession of cannabis. He was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and a 1,000 dinar fine, and has been held since then without access to legal representation and without the opportunity to appeal.
Seizures of hashish & cannabis in Tunisia
Seizures of hashish and cannabis in Tunisia are usually small, compared to the multiple-ton hauls routinely seized in nearby Spain and Algeria. In December 2013, police seized 74kg of cannabis in two separate operations in the Bab el-Gorjani neighbourhood of Tunis, resulting in four arrests. The cannabis was valued at 180,000 dinars (around €93,000).
In October 2013, security forces exposed a ‘cannabis trafficking network’ stretching from Sbeitla in north-central Tunisia (near the border with Algeria) to Sousse, an important sea port in east-central Tunisia. Despite the sensationalist media coverage, just two people were arrested and two kilograms of cannabis seized.
Corruption & drug trafficking in Tunisia
In 1998, between 250 and 280 individuals were arrested in one of Tunisia’s largest-ever anti-trafficking operations. Of those, 148 were charged and put on trial. It is reported that anti-narcotics police officers, as well as some Tunisian Airline employees, were among those arrested.
Following this controversial episode, the Tunisian government transferred control over counternarcotics enforcement from the existing anti-drug division to the Interior Ministry. It was alleged that various individuals arrested as part of the operation were released without trial due to their political connections.
As a means of reducing corruption, Tunisia’s 1992 narcotics law states that sentences may be doubled if a crime is committed by a drug enforcement agent, or by administrative and security staff at drug warehouses and depots.
The illicit cannabis trade and ‘Islamo-gangsterism’
It is thought that Islamic militant groups operating in the Jebel Chaambi region of Tunisia are funded by the proceeds of drugs trafficked across the country. The phenomenon of religiously conservative groups justifying the trafficking of illicit goods as a means of achieving jihad has been dubbed Islamo-gangsterism, and there are indications that some of these groups are increasing in influence.
Political protests and incidences of violent unrest have occurred fairly frequently since the revolution began in Tunisia. In July last year, the leftist opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated in Aryanah, northeastern Tunisia, in an attack attributed to Al-Qaeda-affiliated radical Islamists. Just weeks later, eight border police officers in Jebel Chaambi were shot by militants and left mutilated, their weapons stolen.
Cultivation of cannabis in Tunisia
Although the authorities claimed in 2005 to have entirely eradicated cannabis cultivation in Tunisia, there is evidence that it is occurring along the northern half of the border with Algeria. It is presumed that traditional cultivation and consumption, which has occurred throughout northern Africa for centuries, persists in remote rural communities in Tunisia.
Clearly, a culture of cultivation persisted until the 1950s and beyond—according to a letter written by a Dr R.J. Bouquet of Tunisia to the 1950 UN Bulletin on Narcotics, cannabis cultivation was definitely ongoing. The letter states that male plants were pulled from the fields once they turned yellow and had distributed their pollen, as their resin content was too low to be worth persisting to harvest.
Cultural use of cannabis in Tunisia
The sale and consumption of zatla are widespread, both in rural and urban areas. Heroin is less common; cocaine is rarer still, and beyond the budget of most recreational drug users in Tunisia.
Trading in hashish and other illicit goods is a crucial source of income for many young people in Tunisia, particularly residents of the border areas. As a nation, Tunisia enjoys relative economic stability, and has seen standards of living climb considerably over the last few decades. However, much of the rural population remains marginalised and in poverty; thus, illicit dealing is a necessity for many.
Since the revolution that ended the repressive regime of Ben Ali, drug consumption has increased, although it is not yet seen as a serious problem. Traditionally limited to working-class males, drug use is now rising relatively rapidly among students and women. Tourist resorts are also seeing increased availability of various drugs.
Legalising cannabis in Tunisia
As standards of living and freedom of expression have improved for Tunisians in recent years, recognition of human rights is growing in society and in the media. Widespread dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed tactics of the security forces has prompted many to question the severity of the existing laws, not just for cannabis but also for crimes such as blasphemy, and the manner in which they are enforced.
A Facebook page established in 2012 calls for the reform of cannabis laws, and at the time of writing had 2,250 likes. Under the slogan ‘Unite for the legalization of cannabis’, the group has organised protests with hundreds of attendees seeking an end to unfair penalties for possession. Its members are unhappy at the fact that the ousted Ben Ali could apparently consume and possess cannabis with impunity while thousands are imprisoned for the same ‘crime’ each year.
The campaigners wish to see an end to draconian cannabis laws, including abolition of the mandatory minimum, and agree on maintaining a ban on smoking weed in open areas, but suggest that the latter should be punishable by no more than a small fine.
Purchasing cannabis in Tunisia
Cannabis and hashish are cheap and abundant in Tunisia, but would-be smokers should remain cautious at all times. Tunisian police are strict, eager to implement the law, and often heavy-handed during arrest and remand. Furthermore, any individual may be subject to random urine testing without warning or consent.
For tourists wishing to obtain cannabis and hashish in Tunisia, the best option is usually to ask hotel, bar or restaurant staff. In some hotels in Tunis, it is even said that staff actively offer hashish to guests at the bar, and there are even anecdotal reports of hotels with hookah and bong smoking rooms.
Street dealers are abundant in most urban areas in Tunisia, but they are generally better avoided as their products are usually of inferior quality, and the risk of being observed by police is higher. Police in some areas may also work undercover or in collaboration with street dealers. The price for cannabis and hashish in Tunisia varies according to quality, and usually ranges from around €1-€4 per gram.
What next for cannabis in Tunisia
As Tunisia continues to modernise and liberalise, and its population becomes increasingly intolerant of the human rights abuses of the past, it is likely that drug policy, particularly for cannabis, will undergo significant reforms in upcoming years. For now, however, arrests for small quantities—and on the sole basis of urine analysis—are still occurring, and the brutal tactics of security forces continue to shock and intimidate.
It is important to document the history and current events of the ongoing drug war that continues to affect the lives of so many people throughout the world. For this reason, Sensi Seeds and the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam aim to provide the most accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on the present situation, country by country. We welcome your comments, feedback and corrections.