In the Tunisian dialect, zatla means pleasure or intoxication. It’s also the word used to refer to cannabis indica, or hashish as it is more commonly known in these parts. Zatla is surreptitiously exchanged in Tunisia, at prices starting from five Tunisian dinars ($2.70) and upwards.
Softcore drugs are the topic of hushed conversations between young Tunisians across its cities, but local laws for drug consumption are rigid. The issue has been the source of much controversy among rights groups and politicians, as well as civil society activists, who have been outspoken in their campaigning for relaxed anti-drug laws.
Meanwhile, since 2011, the number of recreational zatla users has only multiplied, in light of the sociopolitical changes the country has born witness to over the tumultuous years. Key among this new demographic of zatla consumers are young people, with 57% of drug users estimated to be teenagers and young adults aged between 13 and 18 years old, while 36.2% are aged between 18 and 25, according to a study issued by the Criminology Cell at the Center for Legislative and Judicial Studies in Tunisia. Zatla is considered the most popular narcotic, constituting 92% of the drugs consumed, followed by cocaine and heroin.
According to Mohamed Nasr el-Nosseiri, a psychiatric specialist and consultant, the increased drug use has been caused by the sense of disillusionment experienced following the wave of euphoria in the first days of the revolution, which did not last. These youth had claimed a newfound space for freedom and self-determination, which was quickly dissolved.
“This only gave birth to circumstantial solutions, such as religious extremism, illegal migration, and diversion to popular districts where the could consume drugs,” el-Nosseiri says.
As young Tunisians came down from their revolutionary euphoria, drug consumption was the next course of action.
Zatla is the Tunisian word for pleasure and intoxication. It is also the word used to refer to hashish.
However, he affirms that “the use of narcotics in Tunisia stretches as far back as our grandparents and ancestors, and is not just limited to the youth. Throughout the 1960s, a strain of cannabis nicknamed takruri (a herb that was indigenous to Tunisia, that was dried and rolled into a cigarette, then smoked) was widely available. However, the political powers at the time launched a campaign to uproot all the herbs, criminalizing their use. This coincided with a trend encouraging the consumption of alcohol, as taxes on them were raised.”
Most of the youth who consume hashish respond in the same manner as to why they developed a habit: “I wanted to try it, so I had one puff, and then one joint, and now I’m caught in a pattern.” Al-Nosseiri warns that “the temptation of inebriation and the escape from daily pressures, as well as overcoming shyness, depression, and anxiety; these are all traps that diminish the capacity to limit the use of drugs, and encourage addiction.”
The consumption of zatla is associated with populous, low-income districts in the Tunisian psyche—densely populated districts where purchasing power is low, and unemployment is prevalent. Most rap songs that emerge from these districts refer to zatla, delving into the causes for its use, and how it has become widespread, as well as those who benefit from its proliferation. They also describe the intimate atmosphere that surrounds zatla gatherings.
Zatla is also popular in high schools across Tunisia. Maher, a high school student in Gafsa, says the zatla phenomenon is widespread in his school, albeit behind closed doors. In this context, Mounir Qarbouj, the Director of the Department for School and University Medicine, presented a study in 2013 on drugs in schools, based on a sample group of students aged between 15 and 17 years old in Tunisia’s most prominent high schools. The study indicated that between 50% and 75% of the students considered the consumption of zatla unproblematic and unobjectionable.
Over the past two years, the discussion on drug use has sharpened, in particular relating to Law 52/1992 on the use of narcotics (including cannabis). The law stipulates a penalty of between one and five years in prison on drug users, as well as a fine ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 Tunisian dinars ($500 to $1,500). Various political and rights groups have united in opposition to the law, calling for its amendment. As a result of pressure from rights lawyers and NGOs on the consecutive Tunisian governments, a new draft law has now been introduced, easing the punishment for drug abuse, replacing the prison penalty with voluntary service.