Do drug dogs deter use?

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.

7 thoughts on “Do drug dogs deter use?”

  1. Good commentary Monica.

    My argument is that sniffer dogs are just another manifestation of the harm that prohibition of morally-proscribed drugs does. Because we are living through an era of new Puritanism, where highly funded so-called health promotion organisations tell people how to live their lives, governments will throw even more of these tut-tut bones to the media.

    These are dangerous times. The more we drive drug use underground, the less chance there is for the minority of people whose use is problematic to receive assistance.

    As a side note, the same person was responsible for the introduction of sniffer dogs in NSW and Victoria. Her name is Christine Nixon. Her talent is only for self promotion.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Bill.

    I agree that pushing drug use further underground makes it harder for those who need it to seek treatment and assistance due to perceived and actual stigma and social sanctions should they be identified as drug users.

    The counterargument usually put forward is that allowing drug use to be more ‘open’ encourages and normalises it, and may draw more people into drug use who are currently ‘deterred’ by its illegality and the stigma surrounding it.

    Where people stand in this debate seems to come down to one core disagreement: is drug use (in and of itself) morally wrong?

    I do not believe (and have never believed) that drug use is morally wrong. I acknowledge that drug use can be harmful, but that humans have been drawn to altering their conscienceness for millenia, and the most practical way to deal with this fact is to work at decreasing the risks of altering conscienceness.

    If this philosophy was openly acknowledged as the basic principle of drug policy, we would have a very different approach. Unfortunately we can’t say categorically that this approach would lead to less overall harm until we try it! However, even if slightly more people used drugs in a world with less stigma and more openness, the odds that overall harm would be lower are high (less harm per episode, although perhaps more episodes would occur).

    A great book on this issue that I read first almost 10 years ago now (and has a prided place on my bookshelf) is Drug War Heresies by Robert McCoun –

  3. I must re-read Drug War Heresies.

    Another great book, which argues that drug use is normal anyway, is Out of It by Stuart Walton.

    Side-note: If one takes a utilitarian view, it is morally wrong to prohibit drug use because more people are harmed by its prohibition than are helped.

  4. Great to read your thoughts Monica.
    I think they probably have deterred some use. Whether this is a benefit or not is depends on your aim.
    One more potential harm of the dogs that is often overlooked I believe is the potential for trauma inflicted on those that are searched. We have heard from some festival goers that were really intimidated and frightened by the whole procedure and now have some lingering anxieties about dogs, police and even festivals. Harms always depend on your view don’t they?

    To follow from Bill’s comments on prohibition causing its own harms (i.e. less likely to seek assistance), I think we will now have a great opportunity to study the effects of making a previously legal drug illegal (mephedrone in the UK). Will be interesting to watch and comment upon.

  5. I think it is hard to tell whether they have just deterred drug use for some, or whether they have done their drugs elsewhere or used different drugs, etc etc. And in the end, those people who are ‘deterred’ probably drank heaps that night to make up for it!

    In the end if people want to get intoxicated, prohibition and drug dogs and the threat of detection/arrest won’t ultimately lead to people leading alcohol and drug free lives.

    The trauma inflicted on those searched is part of the social control. The idea being that the fear people have will result in them making doubly sure they are innocent/drug free for next time – or to warn them away altogether. Harm does always depend on your viewpoint, absolutely. It would just be great if policies encompassed the many possibilities for both drugs and laws to cause harm, to acknowledge the complexities of the situation, and be sensitive to them.

    We’ll all be watching the UK/mephedrone situation. I hope some of the researchers over there have already been making notes!

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