Every year, thousands of young people in Tunisia are thrown into jail for using or possessing drugs. Ministry of Justice figures show that 6,700 people were jailed for using drugs last year alone – that’s almost one-third of the country’s entire prison population. Not only is this an unnecessary burden on Tunisia’s overcrowded prisons, but criminalizing drug use fuels other abuses, too.

Enforcement of the country’s draconian drug law sends thousands of Tunisians to prison each year merely for consuming or possessing small quantities of cannabis for personal use. © Human Rights Watch

So human rights groups celebrated when the Tunisian parliament announced earlier this month that it will start discussing draft legislation which seeks to revise the country’s harsh Law 52 on drugs. While not perfect, the draft law abolished prison as punishment for first- and second-time offenders for the consumption and possession of drugs.

The enthusiasm was short-lived. On January 11, 2017, the Ministry of Justice submitted a new version of the draft law, reintroducing prison sentences for first- and second-time offenders. This eliminates the main advance of the earlier draft, even if judges will be allowed to exercise discretion when jailing offenders.

I interviewed dozens of young people prosecuted for cannabis use when preparing the report “All This for a Joint.” They described all kinds of mistreatment related to the enforcement of Law 52, including beatings and insults during arrest and interrogation. Some told me the police arrested them randomly at checkpoints or during sweeps and ordered them to undergo a urine test, even if police found no drugs on them. A positive test result is a fast track to prison. There another ordeal starts: they find themselves locked up with people convicted of serious crimes, in overcrowded and inhumane conditions. And even after leaving prison, their criminal record makes it hard to find a job.

Parliamentarians should reject this draft law as the government has revised it, and reinstate the plan to scrap prison time. They should insist that drug use is treated as the public health issue it is, rather than the crime some seek to make it. Tunisia’s young people deserve better.