Tunisia’s inflexible drug laws have been well documented. Until 2017, no differentiation was made between possession and usage, and the minimum sentence was a year in prison. The laws were protested by human rights activists and eventually changed. However, Tunisia’s location near the world’s largest hashish producer means that trafficking remains an issue.
Cannabis laws in Tunisia
Can you possess and use cannabis in Tunisia?
Possession and use of cannabis are both illegal in Tunisia, in accordance with the 1992 Narcotics Act. Prior to 2017, Tunisian drug laws were notoriously harsh, with people caught with even small amounts sentenced to a mandatory one to a maximum of five years in prison. This was in addition to a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 Tunisian dinars (roughly €300 to €900).
The law was inflexible and didn’t differentiate between individual situations. For example, it not only punished those who used or possessed drugs, but also those who attempted to use or possess them. Consumption could also be punished, even if there was no evidence of possession. The court had the right to force an offender to undergo treatment at a public hospital too.
The law was hotly protested by Tunisian citizens and activists alike, as it was the only law in the criminal code that didn’t allow judges to pass sentence based on individual circumstances. Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch, commented: “Tunisia’s existing draconian drug law has had a disastrous toll on the lives of thousands of citizens (…) This repressive policy has no place in a more rights-conscious Tunisia.”
As such, the law was amended in 2017 (mainly as a response to overcrowding in prisons). The government permitted judges to pardon defendants as soon as the judgement was announced, thus avoiding unnecessary prison terms. They were also given more powers regarding sentencing, and could take into consideration mitigating circumstances.
In May 2018, a court handed down the first modified sentence, a suspended prison sentence and a fine. This was applauded by human rights activists – who also highlighted the need for further reform.
Can you sell cannabis in Tunisia?
Under the Narcotics Act, it’s illegal to sell or supply cannabis. If caught, offenders are sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 10 years. For those caught importing or exporting drugs, the punishment is even harsher – a minimum of ten years imprisonment, extending to a life sentence. There is also a fine for these crimes – 20,000 to 100,000 Tunisian dinars.
Despite these severe sentences, drug trafficking is still common in the country – largely due to the import of hashish from Morocco, via Algeria.
Can you grow cannabis in Tunisia?
The law also forbids the cultivation of cannabis, either for personal or medicinal purposes. Cultivation is regarded as a serious offence (as serious as sale or supply) and is subject to the same sentencing.
In 2005, Tunisian authorities claimed to have eradicated cannabis cultivation entirely. However, evidence suggests that it is still being grown in the northern region of the country, close to the Algerian border.
Is CBD legal in Tunisia?
Tunisian law makes no distinction between cannabis and CBD; despite the fact that the latter contains very low levels of THC (the substance responsible for the ‘high’). As such, it is illegal to purchase or sell CBD oil in the country, even if it’s intended for medicinal purposes.
Can cannabis seeds be sent to Tunisia?
As it’s illegal to cultivate cannabis in Tunisia, it’s safe to presume that cannabis seeds are also illegal, and should not be mailed into the country.
Medicinal cannabis in Tunisia
In the past, cannabis was consumed widely across the country, for medicinal purposes as well as recreationally. However, it was made illegal in 1953, and since then, the country has not introduced any special dispensation for patients requiring cannabis for medical reasons.
As such, using cannabis for medicinal reasons is illegal, and the government shows no signs of changing this law any time soon.
Industrial hemp in Tunisia
Prior to cannabis being made illegal in 1953, cannabis and hemp were both grown widely in Tunisia. This was even the case as late as 1950, as can be told from a letter from Dr RJ Bouquet to the UN Bulletin on Narcotics. The letter explicitly outlines the harvesting process.
By 2005, the Tunisian government claimed to have eradicated all types of cannabis cultivation in the country, along with hemp. However, evidence suggests that hemp and cannabis are still grown in the rural communities, and along the border with Algeria.
Good to know
If you are travelling to Tunisia (or are a resident of the country), it is useful to know the following:
- Cannabis (called ‘zatla’ in Tunisia) is cheap compared to other illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. This is largely why its use is widespread across the country.
- Despite its affordability, some Tunisians use barbiturates and pharmaceuticals instead, as they’re even cheaper. One Tunisian states to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting: “Zatla costs are five dinars for a piece you’ll use up in two spliffs (…) but a box of Artane tablets (anti-anxiety drugs), for example, is priced at 3.8 dinars from the pharmacy (…) If you wanted to sell them on, a single tablet would cost 1.5 dinars, so that the whole box would be worth 75 dinars – a massive profit in a very short time.”
- According to a report in La Tunisie Medicale, the average age Tunisians start using cannabis or other narcotics is 17 years old.
It’s believed that cannabis came to Tunisia at some point between the 9th and 12th century. It was certainly being used in the 1500s, as Leo Africanus’ Description of Africa describes the consumption of cannabis in Tunisia in detail:
“They have here a compound called Lhasis, whereof whosoever eateth but one ounce falleth a laughing, disporting, and dallying, as if he were half drunken; and is by the said confection marvellously provoked unto lust.”
It’s believed that cannabis was used widely in Tunisia for centuries, until it was made illegal in the 1950s.
In 2017, The Washington Post researched opinions on cannabis in Tunisia. In a public survey, they asked respondents about their thoughts on a variety of laws in the country. The results suggested that 60% of people opposed the decriminalisation of low-level drugs offences (such as using cannabis). 45% stated that they strongly opposed it.
Tunisia’s cannabis trade
Despite the tough laws, cannabis smuggling is still rife in Tunisia. This is due to its geographic position. Hashish is trafficked through the country from Morocco (via Algeria), and from various sub-Saharan countries too. In addition, European traffickers are now smuggling drugs into the country too.
The Tunisian / Algerian border is long, which makes it difficult to police effectively. The authorities operating at the border are also reportedly open to corruption. As such, smugglers view it as a risk worth taking.
What was the ‘Jasmine Revolution’?
The Jasmine Revolution was an uprising that occurred in 2011, forcing President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. The people of Tunisia protested against government corruption and poverty, among other things.
The country’s harsh drug laws also came under fire during the Jasmine Revolution. This started in 2011, after the country’s authorities came up against young revolutionaries. The most famous incident was the case of human rights activist Azyz Amami, who was arrested for the possession of (and intent to consume) cannabis. This happened just weeks after he expressed support for a group accused of burning police posts.
The rapper Kafon was also arrested for cannabis use, and later released a hit song, detailing the social unrest in the country.
Notable cannabis-related arrests
Prison overcrowding remains a serious issue in Tunisia, largely thanks to the sentencing for drugs-related crimes. Most inmates are young males that have been sentenced for cannabis use. 90% in total are imprisoned for drug consumption offences.
There have been some notable arrests in the past. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (the former president) was convicted of possession of hashish with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in absentia, after fleeing to Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Laabidi (a popular rap artist known as Kafon) was another notable offender. He was given a sentence of one year for being found in possession of cannabis.
Some cases are rather more tragic than others. In 2013, Walid Denguir was found beaten to death while in prison in Tunis. Graphic photos of his injuries were shared online, which the police later claimed were caused during the autopsy. Some claimed that his injuries were in-line with the ‘roasted chicken’ – a common form of torture in the Ben Ali era.
Tunisia’s Interior Ministry issued a statement, claiming that the ‘overuse of power’ exerted on him during an interrogation had led to his death. After this, security forces directly contradicted the statement, claiming that Denguir died as a result of consuming ‘zatla’ (hashish).
The resulting fury of human rights activists and Denguir’s family sparked an internal investigation.
Will it be legalised in the future?
Tunisian cannabis laws have undergone significant reform in recent years, but they’re still severe when compared to other countries around the world. For example, it seems unlikely that there will be a medicinal programme in place any time soon, and the likelihood of recreational use being decriminalised is slim.
However, from a human rights perspective, it is welcome news that Tunisian anti-cannabis laws have changed, giving judges the ability to act with discretion on a case-by-case basis. This is likely to reduce overcrowding in prison, and prevent offenders from receiving a minimum one-year sentence simply for using a small amount of cannabis.
- Disclaimer:While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.