The use of drug-detecting sniffer dogs at music festivals and the efficacy of the police operations employing them have been in the spotlight for several months now, propelled by a plea from Art Vs. Science’s Dan McNamee to do away with the dogs during the then-upcoming Splendour In The Grass festival.

McNamee’s argument that the dogs do little more than encourage punters to ingest all of their drugs at once, a practice which can lead to overdose and even death, was in fact backed by research by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and other bodies.

Now, recent data collated by drug harm reduction group Unharm has found that not only are sniffer dog operations potentially dangerous, they’re also remarkably ineffective, with most sniffer dog searches finding no drugs whatsoever.

Using statistics from information submitted to NSW parliament and from the Bureau of Transport, Unharm write that while the number of sniffer dog searches conducted each year has doubled since 2008, the vast majority of searches, including a staggering 60 percent of strip searches, fail to find any drugs.

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As inthemix notes, the writing is very much on the wall. According to a report by Fairfax Media, despite a doubling in drug possession arrests across NSW in the past six years, more NSW residents are using drugs than ever before, with the state this week hitting the 1 million mark for the number of people who have recently used illicit drugs.

“Coupled with the alarming statistics that there is a very high false positive rate, what we are seeing is a normalisation and intensification of a very intrusive form of policing, which doesn’t appear to have its intended effect of disrupting drug supply,” Vicki Sentas, a lecturer in criminal law at the University of NSW, told Fairfax.

“Drug detection dogs have become almost a standard feature at music festivals in NSW,” Unharm’s Dr. Will Tregoning told inthemix. “Often you hear police claiming that they are effective. They never provide any evidence of that.”

“The truth is that the evidence just isn’t there. They catch hardly any dealers, very few people are deterred, and the risks of harm are increased.” Dr. Tregoning warned that the use of drugs during the upcoming festival season could lead to another overdose death and that “numerous non-fatal overdoses are inevitable”.

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Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week, Nicholas Cowdery and Alex Wodak noted that besides an increase in drug use in NSW, the law passed in 2001 that allowed for police use of dogs for public surveillance is an abject failure in catching traffickers as well.

According to a 2006 review of the program by the NSW Ombudsman, successful prosecutions for supply were achieved in just 19 of 10,211 searches. Taking these findings into account, the Ombudsman subsequently made a recommendation that the government consider ending the program.

Indeed, with the rate of false positives returned by sniffer dog operations and the fatal consequences that can result from them, it’s hard for any punter or festival organiser to support the program.

To throw your support behind ending the use of sniffer dogs in NSW, sign Unharm’s petition via their official website.

[Image via SBS]

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