On Saturday, nearly 700 people gathered in front of Bardo Palace, the seat of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA). Since its election on October 23 and its first session on November 22, “the Bardo” – as it is called – has become a well-trodden ground for protesters, who wish to have their demands heard by their newly elected deputies.
A Facebook page, entitled “All united to pass a marijuana legislation,” had called for a protest on the same day. Almost 4,000 people had confirmed their attendance. In actuality, protesters came bearing a whole array of demands and concerns, rather than just the condemnation of stringent penalization for marijuana usage and the advocacy of its legalization. Furthermore, two other themes emerged: the denunciation of the arrest of the Attounissia newsmen on February 15th and a call for job creation.
Commonly referred to as “zatla” in Tunisian dialect, marijuana has become a hotly debated issue since the revolution, which opened room for discussion on previously taboo topics. In Tunisia, a person faces a minimum sentence of one year in jail and a 1,000 dinar fine if caught consuming marijuana.
Dejla Douissi, an actress in the famous Tunisian series “Njoum Elil” (Stars of the Night), was present at the protest this Saturday and very vocal on the subject of zatla. “In civilized countries such as the United States and Canada, the punishment for consuming marijuana is not the same [...] I know a student at a ‘lycée pilote’ (a type of high school in Tunisia attended by only the brightest students) who consumed zatla for the first time in his life. Coincidentally, he was tested by the police and had to spend six months in jail. As a result, he failed his exams [...] And, there is an article in the Declaration of Human Rights stipulating that a person can not have their blood tested without giving their explicit consent. If a police does this without my consent, he is free to use my body.”
Signs advocating for both the legalization of marijuana, as well as the abolition of the harsh punishment associated with its consumption, were visible among the throngs of protesters. “Libertà per ganja” read one sign, and “prison is not the solution” was emblazoned on another.
The demonstrations were largely grassroots, organized through Facebook by Tunisian activists. By the end of the protest, police began to disperse the remaining protesters in the square facing Bardo Palace.