Here are a few reasons why sniffer dogs make bad drug policy: they’re inaccurate, they’re open to bias, they’re used to target low income communities, they cost a lot of money and they increase the risk of dangerous drug behaviours such as ‘loading up’.
In terms of civil liberties, the spectre of heavily armed police using dogs to conduct searches on members of the community in train stations and other public spaces encroaches on our freedom from arbitrary interference by agents of the state.
In 2006, the New South Wales Ombudsman conducted an extensive investigation into the use of sniffer dogs, finding that:
“There is little or no evidence to support claims that drug detection dog operations deter drug use, reduce drug-related crime, or increase perceptions of public safety. Further, criticisms of the cost-effectiveness of general drug detection operations appear to be well founded…
In light of this, we have recommended that the starting point when considering our report is a review of whether the legislation in its present form, or amended as suggested, should be retained at all.”
The Ombudsman recommended that sniffer dogs be scrapped altogether. It’s taken a decade, but there is finally a chance of this becoming a reality.
The Proposed Law
Jenny Leong, the Greens MP for Newtown, has introduced a bill into New South Wales Parliament that would repeal the use of drug detection dogs by police without a warrant.
The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Amendment (Sniffer Dogs—Repeal of Powers) Bill 2016 seeks to alter sections of the LEPRA legislation, and Tattoo Parlours Act 2012, to remove provisions relating to the use of sniffer dogs in carrying out drug detection.
“In NSW, the use of sniffer dogs by police on public transport, at festivals and in bars is not about effective drug control – it’s about police intimidation and harassment,” says Leong.
“The NSW drug dog program has been shown over and over again to be ineffective and a waste of public money. It’s also highly discriminatory – targeting already marginalised groups in our community – and a blatant breach of our civil rights.”
“Time after time the stats show that the program just doesn’t work,” says Leong. “Health and law specialists say so. The Ombudsman says so. But the government is stubbornly refusing to see the evidence.
The Bill will be debated in coming weeks. However, you can watch Jenny Leong’s speech in New South Wales Parliament in support of the bill below:
Is the Tide Turning on Sniffer Dog Use?
Earlier this year, another New South Wales MP, Labor’s Jo Haylen, spoke out against the use of sniffer dogs during a debate on health policy at the State Labor conference.
Ms Haylen, the member for Summer Hill, argued that sniffer dogs have been ineffective in targeting drug dealers, and instead have made drug users engage in even riskier behaviour – the opposite of the program’s original intentions.
“Sniffer dogs are ineffective,” she said.
“They’re wrong three quarters of the time, causing unnecessary interactions between police and young people.
“Rather than ruining lives with a criminal record or worse still, leaving people to take risks on their own, let’s be brave,” Ms Haylen said.
“Let’s make good evidence based public policy and once again make NSW a world leader when it comes to harm minimisation.”
Earlier this week, the NSW Legislation Review Committee also threw their support behind Leong’s bill, saying “[it] supports the principles and advances the human rights referenced in Sections 8A of the Legislation Review Act 1987”.
Ms Haylen argued that the government should instead be encouraging the use of amnesty bins and pill-testing at music festivals, as ways of discouraging harmful drug use. However, it is unclear what stance Labor will take on the new legislation when it comes to a vote later this year.
Sniffer Dogs in NSW
Under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW), police have the power to use sniffer dogs in a number of places, including train stations and music festivals. In 2012 this was extended to also include tattoo parlours, despite mounting evidence that the program was a failure.
Recent statistics show that over 60% percent of searches are the result of a ‘false-positive’, where the dog has falsely indicated a person is carrying drugs. This and other problems with sniffer dog use have led criminal lawyers to conclude that positive indications are not enough to constitute the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required for a search; a conclusion which is consistent with advice given to the Ombudsman by senior barristers.
Further research has shown that drug detection dogs react heavily to the bias of their handlers – a possible explanation for the high rate of false detections. Additional research suggests that passengers boarding a train at Redfern station are 6.5 times more likely to be searched for drugs than passengers at Central station – leading to allegations of bias in police deployment.
Given the ineffectiveness of sniffer dogs – and the tragic consequences that have resulted from users ‘loading up’ before and during festivals – it is hoped that more politicians will see sense and start focusing on harm minimisation measures rather than wholesale and counter-productive interferences in personal liberties.