Dog Days

Friday, 20 March, 2015

People go to music festivals for all sorts of reasons. Some go for the music, some go for the camping and some go to take drugs and enjoy some interstellar mind fuzz. A vast majority probably go for a combination of all three. But as drugs have become an undeniable part of music festivals, so too has the presence of sniffer dogs.

Although intending to create a safer environment, sniffer dogs could be causing more harm than good. In January 2009, 17-year-old Gemma Thoms consumed three ecstasy pills before entering a festival, resulting in an overdose and death. Her friend states this was due to fear of being caught by sniffer dogs. Similarly in September 2013, James Munro, a 23 year old Melbourne man, died at Sydney’s Defqon 1 festival after ingesting three ecstasy pills upon seeing sniffer dogs at the gates.

These tragic stories reinvigorated an ongoing debate within the music community surrounding the dangers of sniffer dogs at music festivals.

Art vs Science guitarist, Dan McNamee, became involved in the debate by lobbying  Ballina MP Don Page. According to McNamee, by removing sniffer dogs “you will cut out the number of hospitalisations due to people panicking upon sight of the dogs and ingesting their whole weekend’s supply of drugs.”

Furthermore, sniffer dogs are incredibly ineffective in locating drugs. In 2001, a NSW Ombudsman research group discovered that only 26 per cent of searches yielded results. By 2011 it rose to 28 per cent. Additionally, the number of sniffer dog searches has doubled every year since 2008, yet there is still no improvement in statistics.

Despite this, police representatives are not open to discussing alternative practices. Police statistics claim sniffer dogs acquire successful results 80 per cent of the time, and that their use goes far beyond locating drugs. According to Tony Cook, commander of the NSW Drug Squad, “the clear position for [police] is that [sniffer dogs] provide a significant deterrent value.” Cook justified his endorsement of scare tactics by declaring that “this is about providing a safe environment across the board.”

Unfortunately for the police, scare tactics don’t seem to work in any practical manner. They haven’t ensured a safe environment and they are not scaring attendees from bringing drugs. The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre surveyed 500 NSW festival-goers as part of a study regarding the effectiveness of drug laws. 62 per cent of those surveyed said that they would take drugs into a festival irrespective of police or sniffer dog presence. Results also showed that the presence of sniffer dogs exacerbated the relative use of ecstasy and methamphetamines over cannabis by 40 per cent. Only 10 per cent of those polled stated that they wouldn’t take drugs inside the festival if they knew dogs were going to be present.

Festival organisers themselves are hesitant about the legitimacy of sniffer dogs providing a safe environment. The organiser of an Australian boutique indie/dance festival has discussed his conflicted feelings. Whilst he acknowledges sniffer dogs can prevent a potential overdose – the detriments of their presence practically offset their value. He noted having “personally seen punters gulp a handful of pills as they see sniffer dogs approach them to avoid getting caught” and how this puts serious strain on first-aid services. He promotes the use of preventive action as an alternative, believing tools such as Amnesty Drug Bins would make a big difference to punters safety.

It seems perfectly clear that sniffer dogs do not prevent drug related incidents. At Sydney’s sniffer-dog-protected Harbourlife Festival in November 2014, 19-year-old Georgina Bartter died after having an adverse reaction to ecstasy. The police cannot be held accountable for Barttner’s death, but could perhaps focus their resources in more effective ways.

It is concerning that the police are not amenable to alternative programs. They seemingly dismiss the idea that the health of festival-goers should be a priority over minor drug misdemeanours. Between December 2012 and March 2013, Victoria Police arrested more than 420 people for drug related offences at music festivals. At this year’s Field Day alone, police arrested a record 214 people for drug possession. Chief Inspector Stuart Bell declared “we will make no apologies for finding these people and putting them before the courts.”

Understandably, possessing drugs is against the law, and one can’t blame the police for enforcing it. But the validity of sniffer dogs is a discussion on safety, not legality. Using scare tactics to enforce a safe environment is ineffective, impractical and a wasteful mess of an oxymoron.

Sniffer dogs have failed to prevent drug-related incidents and have, unfortunately, also been the cause of them. Dismissal and condemnation of these tragedies by police and naysayers persists. Police actions are exonerated by placing blame on victims for ignoring the dangers of drugs and the law. Rest assured, this is nothing short of a thoughtless and backwards attitude.

The fact is – people are going to take drugs at music festivals. The argument over the legitimacy of sniffer dogs at music festivals shouldn’t be over condoning or justifying drug use. It should be about exploring all possible avenues for providing the safest environment possible for all punters, drug users included.