Each year, thousands of people are caught possessing drugs by police and sniffer dogs stationed at drug ‘hot spots’, including music festivals, licensed venues and certain train stations.
In most cases, the drugs are for personal use and the quantities are small. But the potential consequences of being caught with a small amount of drugs are immense – including a criminal conviction, maximum penalty of $2,200 and up to 2 years imprisonment.
In a bid to outsmart police – and help individuals avoid the legal consequences of drug possession – the Greens have launched a campaign to alert the public about where sniffer dogs are being used.
The ‘Sniff Off’ Campaign
The Sniff Off campaign is the brainchild of Greens MP David Shoebridge, who is known for his contemptuous attitude towards the use of sniffer dogs without a warrant – going so far as to label the practice ‘a serious affront to people’s civil liberties.’
Sniff Off aims to raise public awareness about the ineffectiveness of sniffer dogs in promoting safe drug use, as well as the high financial and social costs involved in using drug dogs.
A Facebook page affiliated with the campaign alerts users to where drug dogs may be stationed – from universities, to railway stations, to licensed venues, to music festivals. The page is run by volunteers, who encourage followers to message sniffer dog sightings. A public post about the location of the dogs is then disseminated through the page. Thus far, it has potentially spared hundreds of people from being charged by police.
Besides alerting the public to the whereabouts of drug detection operations, the Greens hope their Facebook page will raise awareness about the frequency of sniffer dog use in public places, and encourage people to support the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Amendment (Sniffer Dogs—Repeal of Powers) Bill 2015. The Bill was introduced by Greens MP Jenny Leong earlier this year, and aims to ‘repeal provisions relating to the use of sniffer dogs in carrying out general drug detection.’
Mr Shoebridge believes that sniffer dogs are used to unfairly target minority groups, such as young people, Indigenous people and the homeless. For instance, statistics show that a person is 6.5 times more likely to be searched at Redfern station – which is known for its large Indigenous population – than at nearby Central station.
He has also been outspoken about the fact that sniffer dogs are highly ineffective – pointing to statistics showing that 74% of positive indications are false. Shoebridge has written about the fact that unsubstantiated searches are an unfair and humiliating experience for innocent people, especially strip-searches which involve the person stripping in front of police.
Mr Shoebridge maintains that stationing sniffer dogs at railway stations does little to stop the supply of drugs, as drug dealers are highly unlikely to carry large quantities on public transport. This, he says, means that police are targeting small-time drug users.
Last month, police made headlines after they stopped a Lismore-bound XPT train at Gosford station and unleashed a drug dog on unsuspecting passengers. The operation was intended to dismantle drug related crime in country NSW regions. A police spokesperson told the media:
‘There’s no surprise that some people are using these trains, particularly the XPT, to transport drugs to country areas.’
Despite these concerns, only three people were found with small quantities of cannabis in their possession – supporting the view that those using public transport are unlikely to be transporting large quantities of drugs.
Inquiry to Explore Effectiveness of Drug Dogs
While Mr Shoebridge is well known for his views about current drug policies, he is not the only one questioning their effectiveness (or lack thereof).
Sex Party MP Fiona Patten recently announced that she would be calling for a broad inquiry into current drug laws and policies.
While many advocate for an effectiveness-based approach to drug law, police want to continue with current (failed) approach. Opposition police spokesperson Edward O’Donohue has raised concerns about the proposed inquiry, saying:
‘While we are yet to see the final motion, it is inconceivable to weaken drug laws at a time when our community is facing growing challenges with crimes associated with drug use.’
Despite such views, it is hoped that the inquiry will encourage Parliament to adopt a fact based approach to drug crime, rather than passing laws based on fear mongering.