Portugal Takes on Fake Drugs to Save Tourism

The capital city of Lisbon has a major fake drug problem that officials fear could potentially scare tourists away

If you’re offered drugs in Lisbon, there’s a decent chance that they’re fake.

Those who live in the central touristy portions of the city have noticed that visitors are increasingly falling prey to individuals selling fake drugs, causing concern over whether this could clear tourism out of the centre. Police say these drugs are usually made of bay leaves, flour, or ground paracetamol.

The police commissioner for the criminal investigation department of Lisbon, Bruno Pereira, tells Reuters that “Tourists are unaware of this phenomenon so they are fooled”. Even those who are drug users could be duped into purchasing a fake version, with vendors showing clients a sample of a real drug but pulling the swap right after they pay.

Meanwhile, many tourists are being harassed by persistent dealers. Reuters reports that travellers are sometimes forced into temporarily hiding inside establishments like bars or cafes. One tour guide told the media outlet that “Everyone on my tours gets asked if they want drugs…Some just laugh, but others don’t like it at all”.

Entire TripAdvisor message boards are devoted to the drug issue occurring in Lisbon. People write about feeling uncomfortable after repeatedly being offered drugs, with some describing aggressive interactions, while many wonder why police do nothing to quash the issue. One reviewer even specifically suggests avoiding Lisbon altogether based on the pushiness of dealers – exactly the advice that local business owners and those who count on tourism are afraid of.

Tourism is a big deal in a country where the total contribution of the travel sector to Portugal’s 2018 GDP was as high as 19.1 percent. The industry has played a major role in pulling the country’s economy out of its 2011-2014 debt crisis. Despite uncertainty over how Brexit could affect numbers and the slowdown of British visitors, tourism from the US went up by 24 percent in 2018. And in 2019, Portugal saw nearly 26 million visitors, with approximately 8.6 million visiting the capital city.

Police say this issue needs “constant attention”, but it appears that they are at a loss for how to make this happen. Currently, law enforcement is working to deter the purchase of fake drugs by encouraging tourists to buy real ones instead. One poster in a series released by police said, “Need some seasoning? There’s cheaper bay leaf in the grocery store. Don’t buy fake drugs!” However, this messaging doesn’t inform individuals of the fact that many dealers are pulling a bait-and-switch to fool even those who know what they are looking for.

Periera believes that legislation addressing the issue is necessary to crack down on fake dealers. Drugs are decriminalised in Portugal, but they are not legal – meaning it is not a crime to possess a certain quantity, but it is a crime to sell it. And since these vendors are technically not even selling real drugs, they operate in a grey zone that hasn’t been addressed in previous legislation. Dealers could potentially be prosecuted for breaching street licensing laws, but because they are selling bay leaves and flour, it’s difficult to pin down an appropriate punishment.

Malta is another southern European country who has also experienced issues with so-called dealers selling fake drugs. To resolve the problem, Malta’s government passed legislation that proposed generic definitions designed to catch a spectrum of drugs. Copyright: Syda Productions /

Malta as an Example

Portugal is not the first Southern European country to deal with an influx of fake drugs. Malta, which has only partially decriminalised drugs, experienced a similar problem back in 2014. At the time, a forensic expert warned fellow member states that existing efforts across the European Union were not sufficient in policing fakes, particularly since new versions were continually being made.

Then in 2017, Maltese police struggled to stem the flow of Chinese synthetics sold as authentic drugs to tourists. Bath salts were packaged as MDMA and cocaine, a substitution that EU health officials believed could potentially be dangerous in the long-term. It was a lucrative business for dealers, as weekend clubgoers and partiers sometimes paid as much as 400 euros for cocaine.

Later that same year, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici announced legislation that, “whether through specific listings or through more generic definitions would ‘catch’ a spectrum of such drugs”. Malta was also quick to ban N-Ethylnorpentylone, known also as Chinese ecstasy, a drug that is supposed to taste like MDMA but can often be lethal.

If Portugal hopes to continue seeing high tourism numbers, passing new legislation aimed at banning fake drugs could be the necessary action needed to better police the situation.

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Katherine Whittaker

Katherine is an Athens-based writer and videographer. Formerly the digital editor at SAVEUR Magazine, she now freelances, focusing mostly on the intersection of food and politics or culture. She earned a dual Masters degree in journalism and European studies from New York University.

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