Last weekend the Greens NSW hosted a Sniff Off Party at the Red Rattler in Marrickville to coincide with the introduction of the Sniffer Dogs Repeal Bill.
Paul Mac, a great supporter of the Sniff Off campaign, played live, along with Hip Hop Hoe, Love Club, Gang of She, Platform 19, Hubble, Wyldestyle, Cihan Saral.
Last week, Greens member for Newtown Jenny Leong gave notice of a bill to end the use of drug detection dogs without a warrant on public transport, at festivals, bars and Kings Cross. This is an issue close to the heart of many musicians who see the effects of sniffer dogs on the live music scene. Dan McNamee from the band Art vs Science joined Greens MPs and Paul Mac last week to help launch the bill.
The Greens are the only party that opposes the use of this ineffective and resource-intensive police power. The international debate on drug law enforcement and law reform is rapidly changing. The Criminal law committee of Bar Association, traditionally a conservative entity, has recently released a discussion paper that puts forward the regulation and legalisation of drugs as the most effective harm minimisation approach available to policy makers.
The inaccuracy of the drug dog program, the violations of civil liberties, and the inappropriate targeting of vulnerable people meant it should be stopped.
SNIFF OFF: THE FACTS
1. Can drug dogs actually sniff out drugs?
Their success rate is little better than chance. NSW Police gave statistics to the Parliament as a result of Questions on Notice by David. According to the figures, drug dogs falsely indicate the presence of drugs 64-72% of the time.
This week, the boss of the Dog Squad Commander Superintendent Donna Adney told the Daily Telegraph that only one in four people stopped by the dogs had drugs in their possession. So they’re wrong three quarters of the time.
But the NSW Police pepper members of the public with questions about contact, however remote, of contact with drugs. If there are any admissions, they chalk this up as a success. Police claim over 70% of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting contact with illegal drugs. Even accepting this untested anecdotal evidence form the police it still means that, at least two-thirds of their 70% is made up admissions to being in the presence of drugs, not being possession of drugs.
Given that 42% of people over 14 have tried illegal drugs, and one in seven have taken drugs in the last 12 months, this is unsurprising. For people in their 20s, it’s more than a quarter.
Can you charge people with admitting to having taken drugs? No. Are they referred for treatment? No. Are they dealers? Most likely not. This is no better than a street survey.
2. Do drug dogs lead to convictions for drug supply?
Most people who are found with drugs are carrying small amounts of cannabis – they are not dealers.
NSW Police provided the following figures: in 2013 17,746 people were searched by police after being indicated by dogs. Of these searches 64 to 72% were false indications, where no drugs were found. In cases where drugs were found most were of small amounts for personal use, with only 2.44% of positive searches resulting in a supply conviction.
3. Do drug dogs deter people from drug use or possession?
No. In a recent study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, lead researcher Caitlin Hughes said 62% of festival goers said they would take drugs either way, but that the presence of sniffer dogs would prompt two key changes. 13% would use at least some of their drugs outside the venue, and there was a 40% increase in the relative consumption of ecstasy, methamphetamine and other drugs, as opposed to using cannabis. At best the potential presence of drug dogs changes people drug use, it doesn’t not reduce it.
4. Is the drug dog program applied fairly? How does it affect your civil liberties?
The drug dogs program focuses on music festivals, bars, public transport and Redfern which means it targets young people, Aboriginal communities and the poor. It doesn’t target cocaine use at high end bars or the amphetamines used by some truck drivers. A passenger getting off at Redfern station is six and a half times more likely to be searched than a passenger getting off at Central.
The excessive focus on Redfern, home to many Aboriginal people and students, is despite the fact that drug dog operations there have a higher false positive rate and a lower detection rate.
This police program seriously impacts everyone’s right to privacy, and leads to unnecessary, invasive, public searches – and for hundreds of people, strip searches. This process robs ordinary people of their dignity, with police asking people to squat naked over a mirror – and the law enforcement pay-off just isn’t worth it. These invasive strip searches by police have increased by almost a third in NSW over the past five years, with thousands of people stripped naked on the basis of sniffer dogs incorrectly indicating they are carrying drugs.
5. What is the problem with drug dogs?
- It’s distressing to be stopped by police, let alone when they have a dog, let alone when the dog gives a positive indication (which is mostly wrong), let alone when police scatter your belongings out on the ground, let alone when they take you aside and make you strip naked and squat over a mirror. It is a stressful, negative interaction that seriously damages police relations with the community.
- Drug sniffer dogs do not discourage overall drug taking and they certainly do not encourage safe drug taking. At least two young Australians have died at festivals when they swallowed all of their drugs at once to avoid detection. The ‘deterrence’ effect is shown to push people from cannabis to pills, since this is more difficult for sniffer dogs to detect.
- A 2006 Ombudsman’s report recommended the immediate end of the program.
- The program is clearly resource-intensive, but the NSW Police have so far failed to provide the actual cost. There are accounts of up to six dogs being deployed at one event, accompanied by 50 to 60 officers.