Drug Detection Dogs- A Complete Failure?

Drug Detection Dogs- A Complete Failure?

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 NSW Local Courts to have their cases heard. 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. This Act also known as “The Drug Dog Act,” gives police the power to use dogs to detect if a person is in possession of a prohibited drugs. 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.

If the police have reasonable grounds to suspect that drug offences are occurring they can get a warrant that allows them to use drug detection or ‘sniffer’ dogs to search other non-prescribed public places or private premises they already have a search warrant for.

The Act does not give police any new search powers to enter premises that they are not authorised to enter. For example, police can only use drug detection dogs to assist where they are authorised to search such as on a private premise in the execution of a search warrant.

In 2006 the NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, 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.”

How accurate are drug sniffing dogs?

According to the Ombudsman’s review, sniffer dogs were accurate in only about 25% of the cases. Although they are trained to detect a variety of drugs such as: cannabis, ecstasy, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, the prohibited drug that they indicated in most of the 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 report revealed that they were less accurate in public transit areas than they were at dance parties.

Table 3. Comparison of ‘drugs found’ / ‘not found’ by main location type

Location Total indications % Where drugs found % Where no drugs found 
Public Transport 6423 25% (1586) 75% (4837)
Licensed Premises 2125 23% (484) 77% (1641
Dance Party 240 39% (94) 61% (146)
Road/street 1193 37% (436) 63% (757)

Source: Derived from the Results Spreadsheet, 22 February 2002 to 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 “seventy percent 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 ‘preload’ on their drug consumption or as a study by Dr. Tregoning of harm reduction group Unharm found, more than 2000 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 last year.

Do drug sniffing dogs violate our civil liberties?

NSW Greens MPs like David Shoebridge and Jenny Leong oppose 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.”

On May 28 of this year, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong introduced 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.”

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.