The rapper Kafon takes a long drag from a joint and rocks his afroed head to a lolling reggae-inspired drumbeat amid the white and grey doldrums of a poor neighborhood in Tunisia. With his eyes covered by aviator sunglasses, he chants a message to the Tunisian authorities: "We've suffered so, just let us go."
The scene is from the music video for Kafon's song "Chakchak." Shortly after it was released in 2014, the musician was arrested on charges of cannabis consumption, a crime punishable by up a year in prison. He served nine months after fellow artists and a committee of activists pressured the government to release him.
The rapper was one of countless Tunisians locked up under what's commonly referred to as Law 52, a draconian drug law that has filled the country's prisons to the point of overcrowding, mostly with poor youths. Lawmakers are finally considering easing up, but only slightly.
On December 30, the Tunisian government approved a draft revision to Law 52 and sent it to parliament for review. The proposed changes would allow first-time drug offenders to be fined rather than serve a mandatory year in prison, and reduce the maximum penalty for repeat violations from five years to one year in prison. But on the flip side, the proposal could make matters worse for the country's weed-loving rappers by adding the crime of "public incitement to commit drug-related offenses," a penalty absent from Tunisia's current drug law, which would make it illegal to even talk about marijuana.
The parliament has not yet announced a date to vote on the proposed changes, but human rights groups are pressuring the lawmakers to act quickly. According to a recent report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Law 52 has already had a disastrous impact on some of the North African country's most vulnerable citizens, and it is hampering the efforts of organizations that provide drug-related social services.
Based on interviews with 47 Tunisians, the HRW report describes arbitrary searches of homes, overcrowded prisons where recreational drug users are packed into cells with dozens or hundreds of hardened criminals, and young Tunisians being beaten by police if they are even suspected of smoking zatla, or marijuana.
"The law affects people in disenfranchised neighborhoods where drug use is high because of high unemployment and [local residents] feel they have no future," said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia and Algeria researcher at HRW.
Harsh legal repercussions for marijuana use have been the scourge of Tunisia's young and poor since Law 52 was first adopted in 1992. Since then, the statute has been used as a pretext to round up, harass, and lock up young Tunisians.
The anti-drug laws are bound up with the inequality that sparked the Tunisian revolution, which ousted longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Since then, protests have continued by youth who are fed up with the glacial pace of political reform, an economy strangled by corruption, and a soaring unemployment rate that was estimated by the World Bank to be over 15 percent last year, but is thought to be much higher in the country's impoverished interior.
The marijuana found in Tunisia is lower quality than the medical-grade product Americans have become accustomed to. It's typically grown in Morocco and smuggled in through Tunisia's long and porous border with Algeria, though some of it is smuggled in from sub-Saharan Africa through Libya. While smoking zatla is widespread in Tunisia among teenagers and young adults, its use — and importance to daily life — is greater in poor neighborhoods and cities. And it is the poor who pay the greatest price.
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"The law is used as social policing to control those [poor] areas and keep them down," Guellali said, adding that she interviewed people in Kasserine, a marginalized city in the Tunisian interior where a wave of angry mass protests against neglect and unemployment began last month. "When [youths] are found in big groups police arrest all of them on suspicion of drug use and force them to take urine tests."
Guellali spoke positively about the proposed changes to Law 52 — except for the part that criminalizes public discourse about marijuana. That change, she said, could have grave repercussions for freedom of expression in the country.
"If something like this is included in the new law, it could be used against rappers, social workers, and even Human Rights Watch itself, which advocates for the decriminalization of drug use," she noted.
'I know a lot of people who just smoked their first joint and were put in jail.'
Tunisia's rappers emerged during the revolution five years ago as some of the loudest critics of the country's government, police, and inequality. Some are known across the Arab world, and several have made hit songs about the joys of marijuana. In addition to Kafon, the artists Hamzaoui Med Amine and Klay BBJ have become well known for their weed anthems and criticism of the routine police abuse endured by pot smokers.
Several rappers have had high profile run-ins with the police over drug-related issues. Most recently, Klay BBJ, a boxer-turned-revolutionary hip-hop artist, was detained last October on unclear charges, though a judicial source hinted that it may have been related to drug consumption. He was released only days later, but the case points to the possibility that Law 52 is being used to target artists and activists who are critical of the authorities.
Khalil Awafi, 26, a member of the political graffiti crew Zwewla, which means "poor people" in Tunisian Arabic, said he fears the law will be used to crack down on outspoken groups like his. The new draft law, he says, "is just a temporary solution. The activists and artists will be pursued more diligently under the law, justified by this rule against promoting zatla use."
Two members of Awafi's crew were arrested in 2012 on charges of breaching the state of emergency, writing on public property, and publishing messages that disturbed the public order. They wrote the slogan "the people want rights for the poor" on a wall in southern Tunisia.
"When you hear that there's been a change in the law, you become hopeful, but the essence of the oppression remains," Awafi said.
Boutheîna El Alouadi, 24, a Tunisian rapper and breakdancer known by her stage name Medusa, seemed more optimistic about the new law's potential to ease the burden on recreational drug users, particularly a provision that offers community service as an alternative to prison. Yet she also said she's surrounded by friends in the underground music scene who have been caught up in the country's crackdown on weed.
"I know a lot of people who just smoked their first joint and were put in jail," she said. "Sometimes they are even arrested for having rolling papers or smelling like zatla. If someone goes to jail, he can't get a job in the government. He can't continue his studies. He can't live a normal life."
Follow Sam Kimball on Twitter: @SamOnTheRoad