Festival season is well and truly in full swing, bringing hundreds of thousands of Australians out into the sun to see some of the best musicians from around Australia and the world. But festival season also brings with the annual stand off between Police and sniffer dogs, and patrons looking to take drugs.

That’s what happened in 2009, when according to The Age, Kalamunda teenager Gemma Thoms swallowed three ecstasy tablets before entering the Big Day Out because she was afraid she’d be caught with the drugs by police and their dog units. The result, Thoms collapsed and was taken to hospital where she died the next day.

A coroners inquest into Thom’s death is currently being held in Western Australia. You have to assume that the timing is merely an unfortunate coincidence given the Big Day Out is due to roll into Perth in just a few days, although with the problems the festival has been having in Claremont, it isn’t hard to imagine there could be some politically motivated tactics at play.

Regardless, the inquest is yet another reminder of the danger of taking drugs at music festivals across the country, where mixed into a cocktail of heat and alcohol can, and has proven deadly.

But are the police really addressing those dangers by employing the use of sniffer dogs at the entrances to music festivals? Or are the use of these dogs a waste of time and money? Worse, could the use of dogs  actually be adding to the risk of harm by those determined to take drugs at festivals?

Firstly, this shouldn’t be a discussion about the merits of taking drugs, illegal or otherwise. You only have to look at what effect to War On Drugs has had in the United States to know that prohibition and law enforcement are simply outflanked when it comes to drugs.

There’s supply because there is demand, no matter how illegitimate we pretend that demand is.

Whilst acknowledging that “there is an element of error” he stressed that the use of the dogs “also creates an element of fear in people with drugs.”

Every year, police and their dog operations return to some of Australia’s most iconic and loved festivals on the calendar, searching the pockets of hundreds of patrons for everything from cannibis, to amphetamines and ecstasy, and everything in between.

And every year we get the same results. Last year’s StereosonicStrawberry FieldsSplendour in the Grass, and Creamfields all yielded large numbers of drug related offences. Byron Bay Superintendent Stuart Wilkins was furious after the Splendour bust, claiming “this culture of drug-taking at music events needs to stop,” after both punters and staff were busted with illegal narcotics.

But the use of sniffer dogs doesn’t seem like it’s had much effect on the drug-taking culture. Over 100 were busted with illicit substance at Sydney’s Big Day Out just this weekend.

So what does the use of sniffer dogs actually achieve? Not much really.

A report released by New South Wales Greens MP David Shoebridge in 2011 showed that according to NSW Police figures, in a staggering 80 per cent of cases sniffer dogs came up with a false positive. In other words, in 8 out of 10 times, the dogs were wrong.

The report showed that in 2011 New South Wales police officers carried out 14,102 searches on people as a result of a sniffer dog indicating the presence of an illegal drug. Of those searches, illicit substances were not found on 11,248 occasions.

“No test which has an 80 per cent error rate could be considered a reasonable basis on which to conduct an intrusive public search of a citizen going about their daily business,” Shoebridge said at the time.

Of course the parliamentary secretary for police disagreed. Whilst acknowledging that “there is an element of error” he stressed that the use of the dogs “also creates an element of fear in people with drugs.”

As disturbingly callous towards privacy concerns as that statement is, it’s also wrong.

According to the ABC,  a 2009 study on ecstasy users and the used of sniffer dogs, authored by Dr Matthew Dunn from Deakin University, found that not only were the majority of those surveyed undeterred from taking drugs by the presence of sniffer dogs, but that if anything the dogs encouraged users to find ways around being caught.

“What we found was that the majority had come into contact with a drug detection dog in the six months preceding the interview, but they don’t really see them as a deterrent,” he said. “If they knew dogs would be in an event that they were attending they would conceal their drugs better, avoid the dogs, take their drugs before they went to the event or change some pattern about what they did.”

Which is exactly what happened in the case of Gemma Thoms. On the first day of the inquest into her death, the court heard that the 17 year old swallowed all her ecstacy tablets as they arrived at the festival because she feared that the pills could be confiscated if police dogs were present. The very fear that the parliamentary secretary of the police described.

Swallowing three pills in quick succession, Thoms soon started exhibiting strange behaviour was escorted to a first-aid room when her teeth began to chatter and she looked sick. No doubt afraid of the consequences of her actions, Thoms gave a fake age and name to the first aid personnel.

This would prove to be a fatal decision. Thoms was allowed to leave the first aid tent because she lied that she was over the age of 18. Her lips later turned blue and she collapsed convulsing before she was rushed to hospital where she died.

Of course, her accidental overdose was just that, an accident. But the culture of fear around drugs cultivated by police did nothing to protect Thoms, a minor. In fact, it’s pretty clear that their tactics did nothing but exacerbate the situation.

Would Thoms have been so careless as to swallow three ecstasy pills before entering the festival if police hadn’t “created an element of fear”? Would she have lied to the first aid attendants if she wasn’t worried about the consequences of doing so? Perhaps most telling, despite the fear she felt, it didn’t stop her from taking drugs.

Our obsession is so great, that we don’t care how many people die, what the experts say, or how many times the sniffer dogs falsely detect us carrying drugs.

Others have resorted to more extreme measures, taking legal highs that closely mimic more popular controlled substances. It’s always a risk when you take any kind of drugs, but new and experimental drugs have all new risks associated with them.

These legal highs either can’t be detected by the dogs and are not prohibited. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Last year at Rockness Festival in Scotland, a teenager died and two others were hospitalised after taking a designer drug similar to some amphetamines that is said to most closely resemble MDMA, or ecstasy, but lasts for twice as long.

The Rockness tragedy and the 2009 death at Big Day Out are just more examples of moral bankruptcy in ongoing war on drugs, which see policy makers focused on fear and punishment at the expense of these young people and their lives.

Our obsession is so great, that we don’t care how many people die, what the experts say, or how many times the sniffer dogs falsely detect us carrying drugs. And yet still we see the increased use of dogs across the country, and hear the same number of people getting busted, year in and year out.

But why? Because music, drugs and the fear surrounding them are a great political tool. Every year the police attend these festivals, but the real action is happening back at HQ where the media liaison officer is busy preparing a statement to be sent to an eager and awaiting press.

Who doesn’t like a few good drug busts to get the clicks or sell some papers? We all play this game, Tone Deaf included.

It’s hard not to feel though that music is often used as a political football when it comes to drug policy, and it’s not just music festivals who draw the short straw.

Towards the end of 2012, the NSW Government introduced legislation allowing the broad and every day use of sniffer dogs on the streets in the entertainment districts of Sydney. Since then, police have been regularly patrolling music venues looking for all manner of banned substances from the unsuspecting public.

As music lovers we need to demand an end to this prejudice. We need to demand that we be allowed to go about our daily lives, and enjoy music without the interference of politicians and police looking to score a headline.

Will people continue to take drugs at music events and festivals? According to the studies, yes. So not only are sniffer dogs completely ineffective, but the presence of these dogs and the fear and intimidation they’re deliberately used for, can in fact be a grave detriment to the health and wellbeing of those who decide to use drugs.

It’s time policy makers take a step back and actually look at the numbers. We need to change our course on this issue. Illegal or not, no one deserves to lose their life. We need to stop the culture of fear before it’s too late for somebody else.

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