Police sniffer dogs largely ineffective, experts say

Music festivals are hotspots for drug traffickers, sellers and users. Source: Thibault Trillet

By SAMANTHA O’CONNELL and SUSAN TELAI

Drug detection dogs are ineffective and potentially harmful, a leading researcher in the field says.

RMIT University lecturer in justice and legal studies Dr Peta Malins said the use of drug detection dogs could lead to more dangerous drug-taking among users.

Dr Malins contributed to the Drug Law Reform inquiry, which tabled a report  in the Victorian Parliament at the end of March, recommending that Victoria Police commission an independent review of use of drug sniffer dogs at music festivals.

The review should look at the effectiveness of the dogs and whether there were “unintended consequences” to their presence, the report recommended. 

Dr Malins said “panicked ingestion” – the sudden taking of a large quality of pills or other drugs – could have severe consequences.

“What we’ve found is that when faced with the option of being potentially detected by the drug detection dogs, people will tend to find a range of other strategies instead,” she  said.

“Panicked ingestion is one of those strategies that people will deploy, particularly if they haven’t really had time to plan. A lot of other people who think a bit more about it will find a whole range of other strategies rather than having that last minute panic at the gate.”

Gemma Thoms died after an overdose at a music festival.

A sudden, large intake of drugs  tragically ended the life of 17-year-old Gemma Thoms, who overdosed at Perth’s Big Day Out festival in 2009.

Dr Malins also said that drug use was a reality for many young people and that police threats “just don’t seem to work”.

“What we need to do is make sure young people are safe,” she said.

“[Current laws] are actually having the opposite effect and are making it far riskier, particularly for young people. We need to give young people real and genuine information about the risks and benefits of drugs and give them the scope to actually talk about drug use.”

Other avoidance strategies taken by drug user that are outlined in the report included, “preloading” which involved taking a greater number of drugs beforehand, and purchasing drugs inside the venue.

Dr Malins said buying drugs inside an event was particularly risky because users lacked “quality control” when using unfamiliar drugs and might be unprepared for the subsequent effects.

False accusation was “humiliating”

Jasmine Telai at Keilor Police Station

A Melbourne woman said she was “humiliated” when a sniffer dog falsely indicated she had drugs as she left LUX Melbourne, a nightclub on Chapel St. 

Jasmine Telai said she spent an hour with police at Prahran Police Station while they checked if she had taken drugs. 

“It was violating and humiliating to be stopped so publicly. It felt like an attack,” she said. 

No drugs were found. Ms Telai said police apologised for the inconvenience they caused.  

“I feel as though there are better ways for drug detection other than the sniffer dogs,” Ms Telai said.

Statistics from an NSW Ombudsman in a review of drug detection dogs indicated that about 74 per cent of drug indications by drug detection dogs found no drugs. 

According to the review, this resulted in many people undergoing body and property searches without drugs being found. 

NSW Police data showed that in 14,541 searches conducted by sniffer dogs in 2014, only 3810 correctly indicated the presence of drugs.

PAD dogs indicate that a person is carrying drugs by sitting down next to the source of the smell.

A question on search powers

Last year Police Minister Lisa Neville said the Victorian Government would increase police powers by removing the need for reasonable suspicion as grounds for a search.

However, stakeholders such as drug law reform campaigner High Alert’s Nevena Spirovska said sniffer dogs already operated in a “legal grey area” and any further law changes could infringe on civil liberties.

“We need to be able to hold police accountable for the suspicions they make, and we need to have the right to object that,” Ms Spirovska said.

“If we take that away, we’re taking a citizen’s right to move freely around areas, and a citizen’s right to resist things like a search.”

Victoria Police said in the report that they measured the effectiveness of sniffer dog operations by the number of arrests made at public events.

The report stated that in 2017, sniffer dogs were used at 16 music festivals and were involved in 330 arrests. In 2016 it was 12 music festivals and 249 arrests.

A Victoria Police spokesperson said: “Victoria Police contributed to the inquiry and the inquiry has now made its recommendations to Parliament. Victoria Police will await the government’s decision on the recommendations.”