Following the tragic death of another Aussie music festival punter last weekend, the issue of drugs at music festivals has once again been brought to the forefront of the national dialogue.
Once again, Australia’s hardline approach towards illicit substances has been put under scrutiny, with particular vitriol reserved for our controversial sniffer dog program and its use at festivals.
Speaking recently to triple j’s Hack, two young punters who attended the recent Strawberry Fields music festival described how they were subjected to a degrading strip search after being singled out by a sniffer dog.
“When you get down to it, you’re literally in a tent by the side of the road, naked, in front of a stranger, squatting,” 21-year-old Kate and 20-year-old Anna, whose names were changed, said of their experience.
Kate and Anna were heading to the festival in northern Victoria when they came across a massive police drug operation around a bend. There were around 30 police officers, a drug testing van, and many sniffer dogs.
Kate, who was driving, was swabbed for a drug test, which found small traces of amphetamines in her system, though not enough for a driving infringement. “We were told to get out of the car, and then we were just questioned really vigorously,” Kate told Hack.
Then, a sniffer dog then sat down next to them. “And the dogs sat down and the police started questioning us because they thought we had drugs on us,” Kate told the program.
The two festivalgoers immediately felt intimidated by the officers. “You feel intimidated to the point where you don’t want to question their authority. We weren’t really sure what was going to happen when we went to the tent.”
“But she [the police officer] said, I’m going to have to strip search you and make sure you don’t have any drugs on you, because the dog has given us a reason to believe that you might have drugs on you.”
“I honestly didn’t see it coming at all.” A female police officer then told Kate and Anna to take off all of their clothes as part of a strip search. All of their clothe were searched, including socks and underwear.“And then they made us squat, in case we were hiding drugs inside of ourselves.”
“It’s incredibly violating and dehumanising in a way, just because this dog sits at your feet, suddenly all your rights are gone and you have to get naked in front of a stranger,” the pair told triple j.
“And then they made us squat, in case we were hiding drugs inside of ourselves.” Anna and Kate say that being forced to squat naked in front of a stranger wasn’t only degrading, but also completely illogical.
“She said if we were hiding anything inside of ourselves, inside our vagina – it would fall out. The vaginal muscles would relax and it would fall out. Which doesn’t really make sense,” Kate explained.
But by that reasoning, Kate said, “If you had a tampon inside you, that would fall out – so that’s completely illogical….it doesn’t make sense. I was just fuming, because I was like, we’re not hiding anything, and even if we were, you’re not going to find anything, this is stupid.”
Kate and Anna believe the ordeal they suffered was a result of being young and going to a music festival. “I think they just perceive evasiveness for guilt, and it makes you feel guilty even though you haven’t done anything wrong,” they said.
“This is a classic example where a lack of regulation leads to power creep – so it’s not legislated the particular circumstances where a strip search can take place,” Meghan Fitzgerald, principal solicitor at the Fitzroy Legal Service told Hack.
In Victoria, conducting a strip search is legal if police have reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying an illicit substance. However, it’s not clear if a sniffer dog detection provides enough grounds for a full strip search.
Commonwealth Law states that a superintendent (or an officer of a higher rank) has to approve a strip search and Ms Fitzgerald says it’s not exactly clear if it’s legal to conduct a strip search based on a sniffer dog detection.
As for being forced to squat: “You’re obliged to comply with a lawful direction. Again, this area is actually quite amorphous,” said Ms Fitzgerald. “There’s not a legal precedent of a high nature in Victoria and there’s also not legislation.”
“So there would be particular principles if there would be a test case which would be looked at – would be a person’s right to privacy and dignity, whilst they’re deprived of their liberty.”