Should Police Sniffer Dogs Be Banned From Music Festivals?

NSW Greens have introduced a bill to ban sniffer dogs from music festivals.

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Jordan, a 23-year-old med student, was lining up to get into music festival Defqon last year, when a police dog started sniffing around his feet. "Do you have any drugs on your possession?" asked a police officer.

Joel Carrett / AAPIMAGE

He was slightly alarmed, but not too worried, because he wasn't carrying any drugs.

"No," he replied.

Then the police took him to a tent with makeshift cubicles made out of security fencing. Inside, they asked him to remove his shoes, empty his pockets and his bag. They didn't find anything.

Next, they asked him to remove his clothes and told him "drop your daks."

"Pick up your balls and move them to one side," the police instructed him. Not surprisingly, there were no drugs there either.

Jordan says he could hear a guy in the cubicle next to him going through the same thing.

Finally, they let him go.

"It was pretty embarrassing and humiliating," he told BuzzFeed News. "Just made for a shit start to a day that was supposed to be a fun day out with my mates."

The NSW Greens say police put hundreds of people through similar experiences to Jordan, only to find them completely clean two out of three times. So they threw a big party yesterday and drug dogs were not welcome.

Why not? Because according to the NSW Greens, drug dogs are wrong 64-72% of the time.

And they say when they do find drugs they're often not busting dealers, just people who have small amounts for personal use.

"We've been compiling statistics and they paint a clear picture of a program that's a comprehensive failure and an assault on civil liberties," says Greens MP and justice spokesperson David Shoebridge.

"In the last year of figures there were more than 17,000 occasions where police searched people and in more than 11,000 cases the dogs got it wrong and the people had no drugs," he told BuzzFeed News.

DJs Paul Mac, Platform 19, Hubble and Wyldestyle played at the Greens' "Sniff Off" party to protest the use of drug sniffer dogs by police at festivals and music events.

The Greens introduced a bill this week to ban drug detection dogs in public spaces without a warrant.

Sniff Off / Facebook: sniffoff

The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Amendment (Sniffer Dogs—Repeal of Powers) Bill 2015 aims to repeal parts of existing law to end the use of drug dogs on public transport, at festivals, bars and Kings Cross.

But they're not expecting the bill to get through, as Labor and the Coalition are both likely to oppose it.

"When it comes to law and order, New South Wales is to the right of Genghis Khan," says Shoebridge, "But as more people become aware of the data, there is broader community pressure to stop this waste of resources."

NSW Police says sniffer dogs are very effective and play an important role in deterrence.

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"Over 70% of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs. Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect," said police in a statement to BuzzFeed News.

But the Greens say those results are distorted.

"Police now pepper suspects with questions while they are searching them, demanding information like 'have you ever been in contacts with drugs?' and if they get any positive response they record that as a success for the dog," says Shoebridge.

So even if you're not carrying drugs but you admit to using them in the last month, police will chalk that up as a win.

NSW Police says many people throw out their drugs when they see police dogs.

"Drug detection dogs have a strong deterrence factor: in addition to the seizure of prohibited drugs from dealers and users, individuals regularly dump these drugs upon seeing the dogs. These drugs are not consumed and therefore the significant risk of harm avoided.

"The prevention of a death of a person through Drug Detection Dog deployment is immeasurable."

But Dan McNamee from Art vs Science, who supports the Greens' bill, says drug dogs at festivals actually encourage dangerous drug taking because people panic and end up "ingesting their whole weekend's supply of drugs."

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

"This actually led to the deaths of a young woman at the Perth Big Day Out 2009 and a young man at a festival called Defqon 1 in Sydney’s West last year," he wrote in an open letter on his band's Facebook page.

So rather than deterring people from taking illegal drugs, it could be encouraging them to take even bigger risks.

Chris Hyde / Getty Images

Kieran, 23, told BuzzFeed News that his friends will take their pills straight away as soon as they see dogs at festivals. He says that's not ideal.

"You want to foster a safe space, and if people are scared when they take drugs, they'll be scared to look to authority for help in things go sour," he said.

"If you go to Stereo and look around outside the venue, people are absolutely cooked," said 22-year-old Leon. "They're creating this environment where people are just dumping their drugs and it's just so dangerous."

"I really hate sniffer dogs," says Tom Lowndes, the Australian DJ behind the internationally-renowned dance party, Hot Dub Time Machine.

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"The problem with sniffer dogs for me is the assumption of guilt. Police assume if you are on a dance floor you're doing something wrong but it's just not true," he told BuzzFeed News.

Lowndes, who has played major festivals such as Coachella in the US and Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland, says he's noticed the police presence at dance parties is more aggressive in Australia than in other other countries. First of all, there's no sniffer dogs.

"Police in Scotland have a less confrontational approach to nightlife, and it's no less debauched and crazy there than it is in Australia, but the police presence is more about safety than about imposing their presence. Their approach to party culture is very different."

He says he played in one of the wildest parties in Edinburgh and police would stand upstairs and look over the crowd. "They wouldn't go into the middle of the dance floor and just make everyone feel like shit."

When Tom came back to Australia, the first gig he played was a much tamer night at the University of New South Wales.

"You know, these students are straighter than straight, and the cops came in to the middle of the dance floor with the dogs and they were searching all these kids and I don't even know if they caught anyone." he said.

Another concern is that dancefloor police raids such as these damage the relations between police and young people.

Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

"When the start of your night out is being humiliated in front of your friends, having to empty your pockets and being interrogated by a police officer, that should never be the start of your night out," says Shoebridge.

The NSW Greens say if there is going to be a police presence at festivals, they should follow the lead of the Netherlands and the UK and provide amnesty bins for people to dispose of their drugs.

Leon says that at music festivals in the U.S, he felt as though police were not there to prosecute people, but to stop people from getting hurt.

"I was at EDC in the states last year, that's one of the biggest festivals in the world, and police were so friendly, they talking and laughing with people, I did see one or two dogs, but they weren't searching people. It's just a completely different mindset," he said.

"Certainly one of our concerns is that increased surveillance leads to dangerous behaviour," says Dr Nadine Ezard, clinical director of the Drug and Alcohol Service at St Vincent's hospital in Sydney.

Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

"What we'd prefer to see is a health approach to helping people, and we'd see festivals set up a cool, calm place for people to go if they are having a bad reaction to drugs," she told BuzzFeed News. "We could do more with police and the health sector working together."

There were renewed calls for harm-minimisation techniques such as pill-testing booths at music festivals following the death of 19-year-old Georgina Bartter after taking ecstasy at Harbourlife festival in Sydney last year.

Pill-screening is available in several European countries, where people can get their drugs tested in real time and then decide if they are going to take them.

The NSW Greens support this idea. "Police should also agree to presence of drug testing kits at venues, so people have some idea of what drugs they're taking," Shoebridge said.

The Australian National Council on Drugs did a survey in 2013, and found more than 82% of the 2,300 Australians aged between 16 and 25 years supported its introduction.

"There's gotta be some no-judgement systems like that set up, because that is the best way to minimise harm," Kieran said.

"People will always find a way to take drugs. But less people would die from bad batches of drugs if harm minimisation was being fostered versus deterrence."