Police sniffer dogs will be used to patrol music festivals and other public events in Victoria this summer despite survey findings that suggest their presence could encourage unsafe drug use.
Sergeant Glenn Barrot, of the Victoria Police Dog Squad, said that the use of the dogs had proven to be effective in eradicating drug use at festivals.
“We know that when we turn up to these festivals there are fewer overdoses than when we don’t turn up,” he said.
However, opponents of sniffer dogs argue that festival goers are more likely to panic and take all of their drugs at once to avoid being detected by the dogs, instead of using drugs at staggered intervals during the festival.
A study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, which surveyed 500 festival goers in New South Wales last summer, supported that view.
While 62 per cent of respondents said that they would use drugs regardless, there was a 13 per cent increase in the number of people who said that they would use some of their drugs outside of the festival in a bid to lessen the likelihood of being caught.
There was also a 40 per cent increase in the relative amount of consumption of ecstasy, methamphetamine and other drugs as opposed to cannabis, according to lead researcher Caitlin Hughes. While it is mostly considered to be a less risky drug, many are hesitant to take cannabis into festivals due to its pungent odour.
In the past, sniffer dogs have regularly policed popular summer festivals such as Stereosonic, Big Day Out, Future Music Festival and Soundwave.
In 2013, the dogs detected drugs on 72 people at the Future Music Festival, 52 people at Soundwave and 31 people at Dash Berlin at Melbourne’s Hisense Arena.
Sgt Barrot said that the dogs mostly found ecstasy and GHB, but also detected a higher incidence of cannabis possession at Soundwave.
Most recently, the dog squad policed boutique electronic festival Listen Out in the Botanic Gardens where 37 people were caught with ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA.
But not all agree that sniffer dogs are a necessary part of festival culture.
Melanie Raymond of the Melbourne Drug Alliance advocates for the removal of sniffer dogs at festivals.
“It changes people’s behavior for the worse, not better,” she said. “We’re seeing that people tend to take drugs beforehand and take too much because they cannot stagger their drug use in the festival.”
Festival goers who spoke to The Citizen on condition of anonymity agreed with Ms Raymond.
“I know loads of people who see the dogs and eat all of their drugs,” said a 21-year old male festival goer.
“Drug use is going to happen regardless, but having the dogs there pressures the drug user into a decision that will either get them caught or encourage them to take all of their drugs at once,” added a 30-year old man, who said he had attended numerous festivals in which the dogs were present.
“Given the choice between doing all of the drugs before getting into the festival or getting caught, most people will choose to do all of the drugs,” he argued.
Instead of using sniffer dogs, Ms Raymond advocates for harm reduction strategies such as a readily available supply of water, chill-out spaces and education.
In 2013, 23 year-old Melbourne man James Munro died at Sydney’s Defqon 1 after ingesting three ecstasy pills upon seeing more than 100 police and sniffer dogs at the gates of the festival.
His father, Stephen Munro, later stated: “There was a police presence at the gates and a concern he would be detected.”
Twenty other people also overdosed at Defqon 1, reigniting the debate about the safety of sniffer dogs at festivals.
The Australian Sex Party called on NSW Police Comissioner Andrew Scippione to call off the dogs ahead of this year’s festival, held in September. However, three dogs and 200 police officers attended the event, searching over 372 people over the course of the day who were suspected of being in possession of drugs. Of these, 83 people were actually found to be carrying drugs.
“Drug use at music festivals goes back decades. This is not new. They might be new kinds of drugs, but its not new behaviour,” said Ms Raymond. “Helping people understand drug use and behaviors in a harm reduction strategy is more likely to get the message through than a policing approach.”