Home News Tourism hotspots express worries over fake drug dealing threat

Tourism hotspots express worries over fake drug dealing threat

Published on 10/02/2020

It’s something many tourists have experienced worldwide. Suspicious-looking individuals prowling tourist hotspots, faint whisperings of “Hashish? Cocaine?”

These street sellers can be found at popular holiday destinations all over Portugal, namely Algarvean seafront resorts, or the streets of bustling Lisbon. These individuals can usually be found offering unsuspecting tourists in “drugs” which police are warning are often bay leaves, flour, ground paracetamol, or more nefarious chemicals.

Locals in Lisbon’s historic Santa Maria Maior district say the fake drugs phenomenon is getting worse, worrying police and business owners alike who fear that it may drive tourists away, steering clear of the Portuguese capital in favour of safer locations. “Everyone on my tours gets asked if they want drugs,” Maarten, a Belgian tour guide working in Lisbon, said. “Some just laugh, but others don’t like it at all.”

Preliminary figures released at the end of last year showed that Portugal welcomed a record of 26 million tourists in 2019, with around a third visiting Lisbon. Data from the World Travel and Tourism Council showed that the total contribution of travel and tourism to Portugal’s GDP reached 19.1% in 2018.

Drugs are not a new problem though. The government decriminalized possession and consumption of a limited amount of drugs back in 2001 after decades of high rates of heroin addiction, to acclaimed success, leading some to refer to the system as the “Portugal model.”

But while selling drugs is illegal, selling bay leaf or flour to unsuspecting thrill-seeking tourists is not. At best, it is a breach of street licensing laws. Bruno Pereira, police commissioner for Lisbon’s criminal investigation department, said that new legislation was needed to tackle the problem, which requires “continuous attention”.

“Tourists are unaware of this phenomenon so they are fooled,” Mr. Pereira said. Police say these fake drug dealers make a steep profit by showing potential buyers a real drug sample to smell or taste and once they have paid, handing them a fake substitute.

“Tourists complain every week that they’ve been ripped off outside our bar,” a bartender in the main party street said. Local business owners, who like Maarten want to remain anonymous in case of a backlash from dealers, are worried due to the threat of losing business due to these individuals’ presence.

“Tourists sometimes come into bars saying they are hiding from dealers”, one bar owner said. Police said that on occasion dealers get aggressive if a potential buyer is not interested. Since the topic began to garner national attention, police launched a series of posters in 2016 and still on display featuring tongue-in-cheek slogans like “Need some seasoning? There’s cheaper bay leaf in the grocery store. Don’t buy fake drugs!”