09 February 2016

Australian Police Playing Drug Dog Games

(IMAGE: Blue Mountains Library, Flickr)Medical, social and legal attitudes to Cannabis across Australia are changing. As jurisdictions around the world, including Portugal, Switzerland, Alaska, California, Hawaii, and Washington D.C., (to name a few) increasingly acknowledge the valuable medical applications of the plant as well as the basic rights of citizens to consume it if they so desire, there is growing awareness and public debate around the same themes in Australia.

In mid-2015 in New South Wales (NSW), the Lambert family, motivated by the dramatically beneficial effects of cannabinoid treatment (CBD from hemp oil, imported from Denmark) for their grand-daughter’s chronic epilepsy, donated AU$33.7 million to the University of Sydney (the largest gift ever made for research at that institution) for the establishment of a Cannabis research centre. Discussion of Cannabis, medicinal and otherwise, is becoming increasingly mainstream, even radio broadcaster Alan Jones has spoken in favour of a medical Cannabis program and yes, even the current Prime Minister is said to have inhaled.

At the same time, however, we are witnessing an incongruous and bizarre escalation of drug detection activities by police, pouring millions of tax payer dollars into random roadside drug testing and sniffer dog efforts. Searches without a warrant of members of the public “detected” by a drug sniffer dog are an ineffective use of valuable police resources and emerge directly from the mentality of the infamous and ailing 'War on Drugs'. Cannabis is the most prevalent target for sniffer dog detection (84%), due to the highly fragrant terpene molecules it releases into the air (the distinctive aroma of Cannabis). 

There is no doubt that every year, with every music festival and increased police/police dog presence at those festivals, more and more people are arrested and charged for 'minor possession of drugs' offences. Offenders are lining up outside local courts across the nation to have their cases heard and more young people are dying from overdoses at music festivals. In 2001 a Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act for Drug Detection Dogs was put in place in NSW. This Act, also known as “The Drug Dog Act”, gave police the power to use dogs to detect if a person is in possession of a prohibited drug. The Drug Dog Act allows police to screen people for drugs in prescribed public places such as sporting and entertainment venues, licensed establishments and public transport routes without a warrant.

In 2006 the NSW Ombudsman reviewed the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 and found “that despite the best efforts of police officers, the use of drug detection dogs has proven to be an ineffective tool for detecting those supplying prohibited drugs. 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”.

In 2013 the NSW Police Force conducted 17,746 searches following a positive dog indication during general drug detection operations. Out of these searches, 6,415 revealed illicit drugs being carried by the individual in question. This means that almost two-thirds of the original drug dog detections were 'false positives', often triggered by the police officer’s subtle physical reaction, such as turning to face an individual who fits that officer’s stereotypical offender profile. The dog, highly attuned to its handler’s body language and seeking reward, then follows with a 'detection'.

Sniffer Dog Searches in NSW
Number of Searches
How Many Found Drugs

Looking now at those 6,000 or so 'true positives', who are the police actually catching? Almost certainly, they’re catching mostly the kid with a joint in his pocket, whose threat to social law and order is dubious. In 2013, during general detection operations involving a sniffer dog, only 713 searches found indictable quantities of an illicit drug and only 397 of those were considered 'trafficable' quantities. This means that out of almost 20,000 individuals selected to be searched as they went about their day in a public place, only 4% were carrying a substance for which they could be charged with a crime.

That substance could be half an ounce of Cannabis, for example, for an occasional smoke after work. And at the pointy end of the sniffer dog enterprise, just 2% of individuals searched throughout the whole year were caught with a 'trafficable' quantity of an illicit drug. So the use of drug dogs, for example on public transport, is not only ineffective but also discriminatory. It discriminates through its very targetting of those who use such transport over private cars (and we can assume with fair certainty that when dealers move large quantities of drugs, they do not do so on suburban trains).

The practice furthermore discriminates in its choice of location and subsequent implications; the sordid and oft-quoted statistic that passengers at Redfern train station in inner Sydney, for example, are over six times more likely to be searched than those at Central station (hub of the Sydney CBD) speaks for itself. NSW police have better things to do than wrongly humiliate thousands of mainly young and marginalised people, said NSW Greens MP, Jenny Leong. “Statistics continue to show that sniffer dogs have an unacceptably high false positive rate when it comes to drug detection – around two thirds of people who are stopped and searched are found not to have drugs”, she said. 

In May 2015 Leong gave notice of a private members bill to amend the ‘Drug Dog Act’ through the proposed Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Amendment ( Sniffer Dogs-Repeal of Powers) Bill 2015. This Act if passed will “repeal provisions relating to the use of sniffer dogs in carrying out general drug detection and to make consequential amendments to other legislation”, to end the use of drug detection dogs without a warrant at festivals, on public transport, in venues and on the streets.

“People are being intimidated by police and their drug dogs as they go about their daily lives, at train stations, music festivals and social spaces like pubs”, said Leong. “We need an evidence-based, harm minimisation response to drug law reform. Hard nose law and order responses haven’t worked”. Before now, NSW Police admitted to Parliament that drug dogs falsely indicate the presence of drugs 64-72% of the time. Dog Squad boss Commander Superintendent Donna Adney told the Daily Telegraph last year that only one in four people stopped by the dogs had drugs in their possession. A worrying recent study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) suggested that the potential presence of drug dogs changes people’s use of illicit substances, but doesn’t reduce it. 62% of festival goers said they would take drugs whether sniffer dogs were there or not. Event goers who see sniffer dogs outside venues may actually feel compelled to use all their drugs before going in, risking an overdose.
Image for Sniff off! MPs say the dogs don’t work

Sydney MP Alex Greenwich advised NSW Premier Mike Baird: “Drug dog searches have doubled since 2009, yet during this time reported drug use has increased from 12.1% to 13.8% of the population. Drug dog operations can increase the risk of harm when people consume all their supply prior to going out or on seeing police in order to avoid detection. The criminal approach discourages young people seeking help if they feel sick out of fear of sanctions for themselves and their friends. Drug dog operations and invasive strip searches do not impact on drug traffickers and suppliers and have not addressed demand for illegal drugs”.

NSW Premier Baird has called upon "relevant ministers" within the NSW state government to review the system under which permits for music festivals are issued. He said: "Individuals need to take responsibility for their actions, but so do the organisers of these festivals. In the light of this latest distressing and avoidable incident, I will be asking the relevant ministers to review the current system of regulating events held on public land, including the system for granting permits for public events such as music festivals". The Premier has called for more extensive screening at festival entry points, and added that events that do not comply with new regulations will not be allowed to go ahead, in spite of any costs they may incur: "If new rules and procedures place additional burdens and costs on organisers, so be it - and we will also examine denying permits to organisers who have not done the right thing in the past. Enough is enough. This simply has to stop".

Opinion remains divided on how to tackle the growing number of drug-related misadventures at music festivals, from on-site testing and harm prevention through to tougher enforcement and sentences for drug supply. Baird's plan to put the onus more on organisers and threaten festivals with shut-down has already been criticised by some as a 'nanny state' solution to a social problem, on par with Sydney's lockout laws.

In 2015, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Frank Minnelli, who led a joint drug operation at Stereosonic, that included the use of sniffer dogs, slammed the "mentality of drug culture and music festivals" saying: "We've got to change it. There's no such thing as safe drugs. You're playing Russian roulette with your life. You do not know what you are putting in your system. These drugs are made by criminals in backyards. It's like opening a bottle of bleach and swallowing it". There have been calls to end the use of sniffer dogs at festivals, but Minnelli defended the practice, saying the police approach is one of harm minimisation, and that "at the end of the day, it comes back to the individual making the right choices".

A Brisbane drug and alcohol clinician, and musician, also called for sniffer dogs to be removed from festivals as the debate over substance use at festivals continued in 2015, pointing out that police dog operations had increased in prominence with many arrested at SoundwaveLaneway and Field Day events in 2015. Geoff Corbett, guest speaker at the Q Music Presents Drugs, Addiction & Music panel in Brisbane, Queensland, spent 15 years working in the Mental Health and 'Alcohol and Other Drugs' sector and said sniffer dogs do more harm than good (Queensland has similar laws to NSW).

I’m like anyone who views it from a public health level, it’s just wrong. “It’s just asking for trouble. What really are they looking to prevent? If you’re looking to prevent mortality and morbidity amongst festival goers then it hasn’t really been that effective. I’d be more concerned about people pre-loading before going to a festival than I would be about busting someone with a couple of pills. In regards to festivals I’d be looking at things like giving people access to pill reports, so people actually know if what they’re taking has a warning attached to it. That’s far more helpful than having cops out the front with drug dogs. I’m not into it”.

Another issue surrounding illicit substances is the possibility of decriminalisation and Corbett believes it’s something that the authorities should look seriously at. “Me personally, I’m all for it. I don’t see substance use as an issue of law and order, it’s a public health issue. With decriminalisation, if we were to look at a model to take the Australian drug treatment regime in a new direction I think Portugal is a pretty good one, in that there’s decriminalisation to a point, for personal use etcetera it’s okay and if you come in contact with the law a few times then you’re transitioned towards treatment rather than put in a jail. Things like trafficking and high level dealing are still outlawed which is fine, but at least at a user level people aren’t being punished for what is essentially a health issue. It frees up the cops to chase the ‘baddies’”.

Decriminalisation is likely to face stiff opposition from some sectors of society, but Corbett points to international examples, “Society there hasn’t fallen apart, it’s the complete opposite. People will always be crying, ‘What about the children? What about the kids? If drugs are decriminalised they’re going to be paving the streets with them!’ and that’s been shown to not be the case. In countries like The Netherlands where they have a fairly laid-back approach to substances compared to countries where it’s prohibited, the ages of ‘drug maturity’ are actually older in countries where there’s prohibition. Basically that means that kids grow out of it earlier in countries where they can access it easier. And they don’t necessarily access it either, just the window where they’re using is much smaller”.

According to a NSW Ombudsman’s review, sniffer dogs were accurate in only about 25% of cases. Although they are trained to detect a variety of 'drugs': Cannabis, ecstasy, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, the prohibited substance they indicated in most cases was Cannabis (84%). The other issue was also where the drug sniffing dogs successfully detected drugs differed per location and region. For example, the Ombudsman's report revealed that they were less accurate in public transit areas than they were at dance parties.

Comparison of ‘Drugs Found’ / ‘Not Found’ By Main Location Type
Total indications
% Where drugs found
% Where no drugs found
Public Transport
25% (1,586)
75% (4,837)
Licensed Premises
23% (484)
77% (1,641
Dance Party
39% (94)
61% (146)
37% (436)
63% (757)
22 February 2002-21 February 2004

The main criticism of the use of sniffer dogs is that they were to be used to effectively target drug supply. However, due to where drug detection dogs are deployed, they primarily detect personal use instead. For example, how often does a drug dealer use public transport? Especially when trying to traffic large quantities of a prohibited substance. According to the Ombudsman’s report, only “1.38% of all indications resulted in ‘deemed supply’ quantity”. If drug detection dogs are being used to crack down on drugs, how come the most common legal action taken as a result of a drug detection through a sniffer dog was a mere cautioning? Only 2.44% of searches led to successful prosecution, according to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, NSW. If the end result is only a caution, is that effective use of police resources?

NSW police defend the use of drug detection dogs saying they are an effective deterrent because “individuals regularly dump these drugs upon seeing the dogs”. They also argue that “70% of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs”. Instead of being a deterrent, drug detection dogs actually lead people to ‘pre-load’ on their drug consumption or as a study, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, by Dr Tregoning of harm reduction group Unharm found, more than 2,000 ecstasy users “increasing drug use had little deterrence effect but did encourage some to consume all their drugs at once”. He said that is actually how one young man died at the Defcon1 music festival.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge opposes Drug Detection Dogs because it is shown according to Shoebridge that “dogs falsely indicate the presence of drugs 64-72%” of the time. They are also as he points out, intrusive and “breach our privacy and civil liberties”. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties stated, "It is the view of the Council that it is an invasion of privacy, harassment and an illegal search to use dogs to sniff people chosen randomly”Another criticism made with regards to Drug Detection Dogs is discrimination. Young men, and especially Aboriginal men, are more frequently indicated than women. As NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge points out, “they tend to be targeted, particularly against young people, Aboriginal people, and the homeless”. The example he uses is Redfern station, where “a passenger is six and a half times more likely to be searched than at Central”, noting that “Redfern has a large Aboriginal population and many students live in the area as well”. Drug detection dogs negatively impact police-public relations. Especially if marginalised people feel they are being unduly targeted. In the Ombudsman’s report it was noted that “many submissions commented on the issue of discrimination and targeting. Most commonly cited, was perceived discrimination against young people, low-income earners and the gay and lesbian community”.

Once someone is indicated by a drug detection dog, the police add his or her information to the police database to create a police intelligence report. Since the false positive rate is so high that means the police are violating members of the general public’s rights because they are acquiring information under the premise that the person is suspected of a criminal offence when in fact they were not. In the meantime, the general public are protecting themselves from this grievous infringement on their private liberties by developing campaigns like Shoebridge’s ‘Sniff off Facebook page where people warn each other as to where the drug detection dogs have been sighted. It seems the introduction of these Police Powers have proved only to clog our courts with those charged with minor possession of prohibited drugs charges, at the same time wasting Police resources and not promoting awareness of the dangers of prohibited drug use.

In January 2016 calls for the increased presence of drug amnesty bins at music festivals were renewed by Harm Reduction Victoria (HRVic). Theoretically, the bins would allow disposal of drugs before facing sniffer dogs or other law enforcement. That means anyone holding illicit substances could possibly avoid the dangerous 'panic response' of ingesting unusually large quantities of drugs on the spot. Similar bins were used in Western Australia outside Southbound Festival. The push comes after Victoria Police called for the Rainbow Serpent Festival to be examined due to the number of drug-related offences . Of course, that festival's organisers have also been going hell for leather in trying to implement drug-testing on site. Bill O'Loughlin of HRVic said the measures aim to counteract "a frightened impulsive reaction at the sight of the dogs", and wouldn't interfere with usual police activity. Read: they'd only be set up to stop festival-goers from overdosing unnecessarily. What's more, Australian Drug Foundation chief John Rogerson said he'd be in favour of giving the bins a test-run, saying "I'd certainly be supportive of trying to see whether it works".

Despite supporting an investigation into illicit drugs, Mental Health Minister Martin Foley said people shouldn't expect to see the bins any time soon. In the wake of January's Field Day event in Sydney, which saw a 23-year old woman hospitalised and more than 180 charged with drug offences (only 8 relating to supply), NSW Premier Mike Baird gave festival organisers an angry warning to toughen up on drugs or be shut down. Previously, the Premier had commented on his own state's track record at music festivals, while championing a review into the festival permit system with the goal of weeding out organisers who fell foul of the law. This much is clear: whatever we have going on right now certainly isn't working.

On an important emotional and moral level, uniformed police officers with dogs at train stations, shops, public pools and music festivals intimidate and alienate the public, especially youth, and those officers are a symptom of a society sorely at odds with itself. For most kids when growing up, the police are absolutely the good guys, and indeed they are, risking personal safety and well-being at all hours of the day and night in situations that would constitute nightmares for most of us. Yet, it would be reasonable to suggest that by their late teens/early twenties, many Australian youth have come to feel the opposite about police officers. The reasons for this shift to a negative outlook emerge from one central fact: police enforcement of drug laws. The police force is essentially being asked to enforce laws that are unenforceable, and have been since they were enacted. Everybody involved knows this, yet the charade goes on.

Is it not time for Australia's state police forces to begin to understand this truth and to acknowledge that its job could be carried out more easily and harmoniously, with less risk to its employees, if it became a voice for reason rather than for fear of the imaginary? Drug prohibition, out of which the sniffer dog-use mentality emerges, has overwhelmingly failed. We don’t need to continue beating our heads against the same wall, until the blood flows, to see this. What is needed is sane, rational, evidence-based policy and policing. Close to their demise, most systems, living biological ones as well as more abstract social ones such as bureaucracies, tend to give a final spasm of resistance.

The 2015 failed NSW Government “Stoner Sloth” campaign, as well as the ramping up of roadside drug testing, appear to be such spasms. The drug landscape is changing, and reason and sanity will prevail. The sooner Australia's state police forces acknowledge this reality, the sooner they can get on with doing their real job, for which we should all be thankful. A cessation of drug dog games would be a welcome step in this direction.

For information about your rights if approached by police, how to get help or make a complaint, visit fair-play.org.au or check the Facebook page and the Sniff Off Campaign on Facebook

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