Why everyone, particularly parents, should be questioning the use of drug detection dogs

Let's start by making a few things clear - illicit drugs are just that - illegal. If you make the choice to use illicit drugs, whether it be cannabis, ecstasy or whatever, one of the greatest risks you face is that you could be caught and, as a result, face consequences that could change your life forever. This blog entry does not deal whether particular drugs should be legal or not. If you believe there should be drug law reform then there are a range of organisations that you can join that are working to change policies in that area. I also want to make it completely clear that this is not a criticism of the police or policing - I have worked closely with police from across the country for close to 25 years and when it comes to the illicit drugs area they have a clear job to do - to uphold the law. Overwhelmingly, I have found the vast majority of them to be great people who are often passionate about what they do and simply want to do their job well. That said, in recent years the introduction and gradual increase in use of one particularly law enforcement strategy concerns me greatly - drug detection dogs.

Drug detection dogs have been around for more than ten years in NSW, the first jurisdiction to introduce this particular law enforcement strategy. Since that time it has been adopted by most (if not all - I'm not too sure about the ACT) jurisdictions across the country. Most people I have spoken to that have not been directly affected by the dogs (i.e., they haven't seen them in action), particularly parents, regard them in a positive way. Their usual view is that if people get caught with illegal drugs by a drug detection dog, so be it, they have broken the law and they should suffer the consequences. The problem is that this is not the only issue here and, most importantly, it's not only drug users that are being affected.

Drug detection dogs were introduced to provide police with greater powers when it comes to searching people - that is it, pure and simple! If a dog displays a particular type of behaviour (we are unclear as to what that behaviour is - we used to believe the dog had to sit down in front of someone - but that certainly isn't the case anymore), the police then have the power to 'pat down' that person and search their belongings (something they previously didn't have the power to do unless they arrested them). They can then go one step further if they believe there is 'cause' and 'strip search' the person.

I'm sure that this sounds fine to many, particularly if the end result is that illegal drugs are found and that the person is prosecuted for breaking the law, but in most cases this doesn't happen. The NSW Ombudsman found that the dogs were wrong 73% of the time, i.e., there were no drugs found on the person when they were searched. In 2010 there were 15,779 searches conducted in NSW after dogs had 'detected' drugs, of those less than a third (5,087) were found to be actually carrying drugs on their person. That means more than two thirds of those people who were put through this process were completely innocent. I'm sure it sounds fine to some, but if you were one of those innocent people I'm sure your attitude would change.

What has continued to baffle me is that parents have not screamed from the rafters complaining about this strategy ... what if it was your innocent child who was put through this process? Ask any young person who catches a train to school and they will tell you that they have seen the dogs on the platform in the morning and have also witnessed people being searched in front of them or taken somewhere to be strip-searched. Once again, some people will say, well doesn't this provide them with a disincentive to use drugs? Watching this process could be a good thing ... The problem is that the dogs are not perfect and they get it wrong (remember, more than 70% of the time!) ... Add to that, what if your child has been to a party over the weekend and he or she happened to be in the vicinity of a group of other teens smoking a bong? That cannabis smoke could be lingering (particularly on a girl with long hair) and as a result they could be subject to a highly intrusive and embarrassing search.

Earlier this year I met a Year 10 boy who had gone to a Clipsal 500 event with his father and brothers in Adelaide. He approached me after my talk to discuss his frightening experience with sniffer dogs. He had gone to the toilet and was walking back to his family when he was approached by a small group of police officers and a dog. He had never even heard of drug detection dogs and didn't think anything of it until the dog came closer to him and started sniffing around his feet. One of the officers then asked him if he was carrying drugs and if he was he should hand them over. He told them he didn't take drugs and was then told that he was about to be searched. Terrified, the young man stood there and was patted down and asked to empty his pockets and take his shoes and socks off. No drugs were found and he was allowed to return to his family.

When I asked him if he had told his father what had happened to him, he said he had been too embarrassed about the ordeal and just wanted to forget it.

I have no idea whether this was even a legal search - I have asked many times for police services across the country to provide information about operational procedures involving dogs and whether juveniles are able to be legally searched without a parent or guardian present (I'm sure they're not and experts in the area have agreed with me) and I have got no answer (regardless of whether it is legal or not, it is happening!). Here is an extract from a letter I sent through to the NSW Police Commissioner earlier this year requesting information on the use of drug detection dogs to assist me in providing education to the students I present to ...

I am writing to you at this time in regards to the provision of some information on the NSW Police Force’s operational procedures around the use of drug detection dogs. My company, DARTA, provides information sessions to secondary school students across the country on alcohol and other drug issues and in my Year 12 presentation I try to provide some information on drug detection dogs from a prevention perspective, i.e., this strategy exists, these are the illicit drugs they target and this is the procedure that police follow should you come into contact with a dog.

Unfortunately I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to get any information on the operational procedures on drug detection dogs in this state and currently the only information I can provide is based on anecdote, which as you can imagine is not at all satisfactory. I have made numerous attempts to make contact with the NSW Police Dog Unit but have never received a response.  The RTA has been extremely forthcoming in providing information regarding the procedures around roadside drug testing and, as a result, the prevention messages I provide to Year 12 students on this topic are accurate and received extremely well. It would be wonderful if I was able to provide similar information around drug detection dogs.

I quickly received a response stating that my request had been forwarded to the Dog Unit but have heard nothing since - that was on July 9, almost three months ago!

So why should everyone be concerned (particularly parents) about the use of drug detection dogs? Here are a list of just some of my concerns:
  • 'innocent people' (i.e, those who are not carrying drugs on their person) are being subjectd to highly intrusive searches
  • some of these innocent people are juveniles, most of whom never report that they have been through this process either because they are embarrassed or they simply want to forget it as quickly as they can
  • police have provided no information on the operational procedures involving drug detection dogs, so they can therefore do what they want and it becomes very difficult to establish whether or not what they did was legal or not
  • it is almost impossible to provide any education to young people on this issue as we don't know what the process is. We could certainly just say 'don't take drugs' (which is what the police have suggested) but that's not the whole story here - dogs get it wrong, what do we tell young people about that? 
  • although the media usually only covers drug detection dog operations at dance festivals and nightlife areas, dogs are regularly used at public transport facilities, particularly train stations, and if your child catches a bus or train to school they could be subjected to a search at any time
  • this is an incredibly expensive strategy and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that it is in anyway effective - has it reduced drug use or any drug-related harm? I know of no evidence to suggest that it has ... Couldn't this money be spent on evidence-based policing strategies?
I am a supporter of giving police greater powers to keep them safer. Drug detection dogs do not keep police safer, it just enables them to enter particular places without a warrant (something they weren't previously allowed to do) and search people when a dog displays a particular behaviour. I'll repeat what I said earlier, we don't know what behaviour the dog needs to display, but based on that police officers are allowed to pat people down, search them and their belongings and actually strip search someone ... Why are we not all yelling and screaming and saying that this has to stop?


  1. Thanks for your post. I was under the impression that the dogs had to sit down. The fact that they have to display some undetermined behaviour is very concerning. In addition to what you have posted there is also the problem of young people at festivals taking all of their drugs at once when they see the dogs. I can't imagine in what way the use of these dogs makes anyone safer at all.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for the article. A long time ago (when the NSW Ombudsmans report on sniffer dogs first was released) I wrote multiple letters to all pertinent political figures along with my local member, who was at the time Acting Police Minister, asking how it was possible for such an ineffective and clearly destructive policy was continuable.

    I was told in no uncertain terms to get stuffed and that there would certainly be no changes made to any legislation around police dogs, as anyone questioning the topic must in fact be a druggy.

    The NSW member for Greens at the time was kind enough to ask my question in Question Time, and was given essentially an identical response.

    I have included as a link the full text of my letter: http://pastebin.com/j3ZQpNZT

    As you note in the article, the legislation came out over a decade ago, the NSW Ombudsman report in 2006 and it's clear that only a very small subset of the population (humans rights activists, privacy advocates, drug policy specialists and those who have been wrongly searched) cares. It is obvious that the politicians and society at large do not care about either the dogs nor the slippery slope which they have already led us down.

  3. Hi Paul,
    Thank you for an interesting read. Our organisation couldn't agree with you more on this matter. With the introduction of the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 allowing police to conduct a ‘general drug detection’ without a warrant in public places raises many concerns for our rights. Don't get us wrong, we admire and respect the work police officers do in order to protect us, however we struggle to understand how this is fair and just. There is significant evidence that drug detection dogs have a minimal deterrence effect and often provide poor strike rates. With the false positive rate increasing each year, it is absurd to us as to why they continue to use this drug operation. We also find it ridiculous that they are legally allowed to search anyone they deem to be suspicious, in a public place! Can you imagine the humiliation if you were to be searched and frisked, only to be told that you don't have anything and to move along. With unfortunate events happening in recent years with young people taking all their drugs once seeing a drug dog and the poor results they provide, it is time that the drug detection dogs are finally stopped so we can shift our attention (and money) on to more effective means of preventing drug use.
    Thank you,
    Ditch the Dogs


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