For almost a quarter of a century, Tunisia’s drug laws have mandated long prison sentences for drug offenses resulting in large numbers of low-level offenders in Tunisian prisons. Long prison sentences are cruel, disproportionate, and counterproductive punishment for recreational users.People convicted for drug use or possession leave prison with a criminal record that often prevents them from gaining employment and subjects them to social stigma and police harassment.

Law n.92-52 on Narcotics (referred to as Law 52), adopted in 1992, requires courts to impose a minimum mandatory sentence of one year in prison on any person found guilty of use and possession of an illegal drug, including cannabis. The law imposes a minimum sentence of five years in prison on repeat offenders. For both offenses, judges have no discretion to reduce the sentence in light of mitigating circumstances. Even in cases involving possession of a single joint, judges lack authority to impose alternatives to incarceration such as community-based sanctions or other administrative penalties.

As of December 2015, 7,451 people were prosecuted for drug related offences in Tunisia’s prisons, and 7,306 men and 145 women, according to the Justice Ministry’s General Administration of Prisons and Rehabilitation. Around seventy percent of these – about 5,200 persons, were convicted of using or possessing cannabis, referred to in Tunisia as “zatla.” Drug offences represented 28 percent of the total state prison population.

Human Rights Watch has documented how state enforcement of criminal drug law in Tunisia has resulted in serious human rights violations. Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 people in several locations in Tunisia, including young residents of working-class neighborhoods, students, artists, and bloggers. The interviews showed that abuses accompany enforcement of Tunisia’s drug control policies, such as beatings during arrest and interrogation, rude, insulting and threatening police behavior, mistreatment during urine tests and searches of homes without judicial warrants.

Once a person is convicted under Law 52 and sent to prison, another kind of ordeal begins. In its last report on Tunisia, the Office of The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights cited significant overcrowding in Tunisian prisons, suggesting that some prisons were at 150 percent capacity. Therefore, a person convicted of smoking a joint has to share an overcrowded cell with persons imprisoned for serious crimes.

Precious law enforcement and court resources are expended processing thousands of cannabis possession arrests each year – resources that could be reallocated to handling more serious offenses.

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