Ecstasy arrest numbers have been rising in the Australian state of New South Wales. While many interpret the rise in the number of ecstasy users arrested as evidence of increased popularity of the drug, it is also a likely consequence of increased policing, especially the use of drug detection dogs at music festivals and clubs.
In 2004, Victoria Police first announced their plans to use drug detection dogs (or sniffer dogs) to assist in the arrests of people in possession of prohibited substances. I was one of a group of people who gathered in a Melbourne pub to discuss the situation with other concerned citizens. Our little group talked about how people might respond to sniffer dogs: would drugs be taken at home before going out? would people who bought from regular dealers before going out turn to unknown dealers once inside the club? would people just have more house parties? We never really considered the question: will people stop taking drugs altogether because they might be slightly more likely to get arrested? We knew that this outcome was far-fetched, even though it was the official argument from police and policy makers.
Fast forward to today: I find myself having coffee with a friend from the original 2004 sniffer-dog group of concerned (clubbing) citizens. Our lives have changed a lot since then. Victoria Police now routinely employ sniffer dogs in their work. They are a feature of the Melbourne clubbing experience and according to my friends, clubbers have adapted. On a recent Melbourne outting of his, he and his partner found broken condoms and film canisters in the toilets. Through conversation, they discovered how clubbers had adapted to the reality of sniffer dogs: by storing their drugs internally in the canisters wrapped in condoms.
My friend’s observation is supported by research conducted in this area in Sydney and Melbourne. Dunn and Degenhardt conclude from their research in Sydney that:
regular ecstasy users do not see detection dogs as an obstacle to their drug use. Future research is necessary to explore in greater depth the experiences that drug users have with detection dogs; the effect detection dogs may have on deterring drug consumption; whether encounters with detection dogs contribute to drug-related harm; and the cost–benefit analysis of this law enforcement exercise.
Given these conclusions, it is not clear what purpose sniffer dogs serve. Superintendent Bingham notes that:
With MDMA, it’s lots of smaller seizures. If we go to a large music festival, we are there to target the dealers, not the users, but obviously the users will get caught up in that.
Clearly if MDMA dealers are not being caught, then the stated aim of employing sniffer dogs (to catch dealers) has not been met so far. Even most users would not get caught, given that they will either hide more effectively, choose different venues like house parties over large music events, or buy drugs inside the venues rather than from a known dealer.
So, we return to examining the media mentions of drug busts assisted by sniffer dogs. There, I believe, we find our answer. Sniffer dogs assist police in making more arrests, and these arrests become newsworthy for the general public, who in turn believe the police are doing ‘something’ about ‘drugs’.
Unfortunately, a small number of people have become casualities of the increased policing policies. In 2009, a 17-year-old girl attending the Big Day Out overdosed after consuming all of her drugs:
as she waited in line because she was frightened that she would be searched on entry
Although this response is unusual, any death like this is tragic. It is especially tragic when increased policing at events is sold as an effective deterrent to drug use, when there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.