Banning sniffer dogs at music festivals could be valuable: experts

Drug-taking festival-goers are more likely use ecstasy or methamphetamines rather than cannabis if sniffer dogs are present. Men in white coats: Art Vs Science don’t pretend to have a plan, but no one seems to mind. Photo: Erik Bergan

Drug-taking festival-goers are more likely use ecstasy or methamphetamines rather than cannabis if sniffer dogs are present. Photo: Viki Yemettas

Trialling a sniffer dog-free music festival could be a valuable experiment, according to drug safety and policy experts.

It follows the plea by Australian band Art Vs Science to abandon the use of drug-detection dogs at this month’s Splendour in the Grass event to reduce the number of “panic” overdoses.

“Automatically you will cut out the number of hospitalisations due to people panicking upon sight of the dogs and ingesting their whole weekend’s supply of drugs,” guitarist Dan McNamee wrote on the band’s Facebook page.

A study of 500 New South Wales festival-goers conducted by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre during summer 2014 examined how sniffer dogs influenced their behaviour.

Lead researcher Caitlin Hughes said 62 per cent of respondents said they would take drugs either way, but that the presence of sniffer dogs would prompt two key changes.

“There was a 13 per cent increase in the number of people who said they’d use at least some of their drugs outside the venue, rather than using them all inside,” she said.

“The other big change was a 40 per cent increase in the relative amount of consumption of ecstasy, methamphetamine and other drugs, as opposed to using cannabis.”

Dr Hughes said other studies had shown dogs found it easier to sniff out marijuana than other party drugs.

“So they’re switching from cannabis to ecstasy and methamphetamine for reasons we think are to do with reducing their potential risk of detection by the dog.”

Dr Hughes said sniffer dogs had become a default strategy for police around the country, and a trial could discover if there were better options.

“Given there are a lot of other police strategies that could be deployed at festivals, such as collaborative policing approaches, we suspect that the answer may be yes, and that they may offer a safer form of policing at high drug use settings,” she said.

“There’s certainly been a lot of consternation about this issue, so some sort of experiment might be a good idea…. but I’m not sure if police would be happy to participate.”

National policy manager for the Australian Drug Foundation Geoff Munro said the organisation was concerned about hospitalisations resulting from people swallowing their drugs to avoid being caught.

“We would support police and festival organisers using other measures to keep festival goers safe and healthy during the event,” he said.

“[The ADF] knows that the reality is that many people do take drugs at music festivals, so we need to all work together to make sure people come home safely.”

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