Sniffer dogs increase trauma and risks of overdose

New research has found that deploying drug detection dogs at music festivals and public places encourages users to adapt their drug consumption, often with harmful consequences.

The study found the presence of sniffer dogs increased the risk of unsafe drug practices and revealed that the experience of being searched had the potential to cause lasting trauma.

Lead researcher Dr Peta Malins said the presence of sniffer dogs and police at these events did not deter people from consuming drugs, and in fact people reported choosing to take drugs earlier, faster or in higher quantities.

“People told us that when they realised there were dogs and police monitoring event queues they took all their drugs at once to avoid detection,” she said.

People also reported concealing drugs internally or buying drugs from unfamiliar sources once they had passed the police, risking potential health consequences.  

In addition to the stigma and shame that sniffer dog searches produced, particularly for those from marginalised groups, people who had been strip searched or had a history of trauma reported significant short- and long-term mental health concerns including anxiety and distress.

“The implications of being stopped and searched by police go beyond short-term public humiliation,” Malins said.

“People found the experience highly distressing and reported feeling disempowered and de-humanised.”

She said the findings suggest sniffer dogs are not reducing drug taking at public events and are instead increasing both trauma and the risk of overdose.

“Given that general drug detection dog operations are not working and are instead producing a range of harms including increased risks of overdose, stigma and trauma, they should be immediately discontinued,” she said.

She said police resources in festival and leisure contexts should be directed away from a focus on drug detection and deterrence, and toward enhancing or supporting patron safety.

The shift would likely not only reduce harm but also improve police- community relations which the research also showed is impaired by current practices.

“The important goal of preventing overdose fatalities in such settings would be far better served by putting resources into evidence-based, non-judgmental and non-threatening harm reduction interventions such as in-situ peer education and pill-testing,” she said.

Drug dog affects: Accounting for the broad social, emotional and health impacts of general drug detection dog operations in Australia (DOI 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.03.004) is published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. 

Story: Chad O'Brien and Grace Taylor

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