NSW police claim that drug detection dogs are a necessary part of law enforcement.
However, a number of comprehensive reports have found that sniffer dog operations are ineffective and can have dangerous consequences.
Studies have shown that far from deterring drug suppliers, the presence of sniffer dogs can lead to unnecessary harm and even death through risky behaviours like ‘loading up’ – where users consume all of their drugs at once, before or during events, to avoid detection.
Since drug detection operations commenced in early 2001, sniffer dogs have become a regular sight at train stations, music festivals, and public events, while invasive and humiliating procedures like strip-searches are becoming more common.
According to Will Tregoning, the Director of harm reduction group Unharm:
“One of the real concerns is that people preload – they take all their drugs before attending the event, and that can happen in one of two ways.”
“The first is pre-planned, and that is concerning in itself because it means if people have made that decision to use drugs, rather than spacing it out in a way that can enable them to see the effects of the first pill, for example, before they take the second, they are just taking the lot and hoping for the best.”
“But perhaps even more concerning is the panicked overdose,” Tregoning said, a practice which has only grown more commonplace at music festivals and public events.
Some of the world’s leading research institutes echo these findings, with the Chief Executive of drug research and advocacy organisation The Penington Institute, John Ryan, describing sniffer dogs as “a recipe for overdose”.
“Police crackdowns with dogs won’t dent drug usage … Sydney already has more accidental fatal drug overdoses than traffic accident deaths.”
In June 2006, NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour released his eagerly awaited “Review of the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001”.
The Report examined 470 drug dog operations over two years, the majority occurring in greater Sydney.
Its findings were highly critical of the use of drug detection dogs.
The review found that prohibited drugs were located in only 26 per cent of the recorded positive indications by drug dogs.
And of the 10,211 positive indications made, there were only 19 successful prosecutions for drug supply – representing 0.19 per cent of those searched.
Barbour concluded that: “the use of drug detection dogs has proven to be an ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers”.
His findings were a significant blow to the primary justification for the use of sniffer dogs – which was to detect and prosecute those engaged in drug supply.
The rate of detection since 2006 has remained low – government figures obtained in parliament by Greens MP David Shoebridge show that only around one-third of positive indications lead to drugs being found:
Searches after positive indications: 7,603
Drugs found: 2,435
Searches after positive indications: 10,562
Drugs found: 3,748
Searches after positive indications: 17,321
Drugs found: 5,109
Searches after positive indications: 15,779
Drugs found: 5,087
Searches after positive indications: 18,281
Drugs found: 5,031
Searches after positive indications: 16,184
Drugs found: 5,280
Searches after positive indications: 17,746
Drugs found: 6,415
TOTAL: 2007 – 2013
Drugs found: 33,105
Bearing in mind that under the law, drug detection dogs can only be used without a warrant in areas where there is a typically high concentration of drug use eg clubs, bars, dance parties, train stations etc – and given that police operations tend to focus on areas where the concentration is highest (eg music festivals and selected stations eg Redfern and Kings Cross) – the figure of less than one-third is alarmingly low.
One might even suggest that, at some venues such as music festivals, the overall rate of drug use might not be much lower than this figure; and that randomly subjecting one-in-three people to searches might produce similar results.
That argument is supported by studies into the ‘normalisation of drug use among young people’; one of which collected data from the ‘Big Day Out’ music festival over a 4 year period between 2006 and 2009, finding that more than half of the respondents surveyed used illicit drugs.
Despite these findings, NSW police continue to strongly defend their powers to use sniffer dogs, claiming the use of sniffer dogs is an accurate and reliable method of detecting drugs.
‘”Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect,” said Inspector Chris Condon of the NSW Police dog unit.
‘”Drug-detection dogs are an important facet of the overall harm-minimisation strategy of the NSW Police Force. Drug-detection dogs are an extremely effective deterrent to persons transporting drugs for the purpose of supply.”
Like many others, the Ombudsman disagrees:
“Overwhelmingly, the use of drug detection dogs has led to public searches of individuals in which no drugs were found, or to the detection of (mostly young) adults in possession of very small amounts of cannabis for personal use.”
The Tide is Turning
Over the past few years, several MPs, medical practitioners and community leaders have called for a change in policy.
As reported in one of our blogs, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong recently introduced a Bill to end the use of sniffer dogs in public places without warrant, arguing that the policy allows police to get away with large-scale harassment and intimidation.
“The most recent expansion of the drug dog program was to allow the dogs to operate on the entire Sydney train network. That expansion has been a clear policy failure, with 4,925 searches conducted between 1 January 2014 and 18 May 2015 of which 3,948—or more than 80 per cent—were false positives.”
“Any other police program that was getting it wrong 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the time would be shut down immediately, and that should be the case with the drug dog program,” Leong said.
This comes after another highly publicised overdose in November last year, when 25-year-old chemist Sylvia Choi died after taking ecstasy at the Stereosonic music festival.
However, the State government is unwavering in its support of sniffer dog operations. A spokesperson for Deputy Premier and Minister for Justice and Police Troy Grant, recently said:
“The use of drug detection dogs is an important tool in our efforts to combat dangerous, illicit drugs,”
“They are deployed not only to detect these drugs and prevent their use and distribution, but as a form of high visibility policing to deter drug activity which is illegal.”
It seems the government is loath to remove police powers in any context, regardless of the evidence.