Drug detection dogs: An ineffective and inequitable policing strategy that needs to stop

November 2023
Authors: Ms Daisy Gibbs, Evaluation Officer, Burnet Institute A/Prof Caitlin Hughes, Associate Professor in Criminology and Drug Policy, Centre for Crime Policy and Research, Flinders University Dr Rachel Sutherland, Senior Research Fellow, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

How long have drug detection dogs been used, why were they introduced, and how common are they?

Drug detection dogs are a street-level policing strategy that has been used in Australia for over 25 years.

The stated intent of this policy is to target drug supply. However, in 2006, the NSW Ombudsman showed most people detected by the dogs either had no drugs at all or were people who use drugs - not those who supply drugs. Since then, increasing evidence has challenged the effectiveness and legality of this policing strategy.

Despite this increasing evidence, a 2018 study of people who use drugs found Australia had one of the highest reported incidences of drug-dog encounters. These occurred most often at festivals, on public transport, and on licensed premises. In fact, policing and law enforcement, including police drug dog operations, account for nearly two-thirds of the Australian government's spending on illegal drugs.

Do drug detection dogs actually deter people from using drugs?

Evidence suggests drug dogs do not deter people from using drugs. However, much of the evidence base for these arguments focuses on festival settings. Relatively little is known about experiences in non-festival settings and among different groups of people who use drugs (that is, those who do not typically attend festivals).

Our research shows police drug dogs are both an ineffective and inequitable strategy, which may carry health, social, and legal risks.

We have published two studies about police drug dog encounters among two samples of people who regularly use drugs. The Ecstasy and Related Drug Reporting System (EDRS) includes interviews with people who regularly use ecstasy and/or other illicit stimulants, and the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) includes interviews with people who regularly inject drugs.

Should we continue using drug dogs at music festivals?

We found encounters with drug dogs at festivals were common. The vast majority (94%) of those who reported such encounters said they had anticipated the presence of drug dogs, reinforcing concerns that the growing normalisation of drug dogs may actually be reducing their efficacy. Rather than being deterred from using or carrying drugs into the festival, participants who encountered and/or anticipated drug dogs reported taking steps to try to avoid detection by dogs.

Consistent with previous research, those who expected to see police drug dogs at the festival described trying to hide their drugs well, or taking their drugs before entering the festival. Both of these approaches to avoiding detection have been shown to increase the risk of overdose and other adverse events, a cause for considerable concern following the deaths of two men at a New South Wales music festival in October.

Equally importantly, our research showed that in 98% of instances where people encountered dogs while carrying drugs, the drug detection dogs failed to detect the drugs.

As such, we believe drug detection dogs should no longer be used in festival settings.

Outside of festival settings, what has your research shown?

Our research has explored encounters with drug detection dogs in non-festival settings among different groups of people who use drugs, including those who regularly inject drugs and those who regularly use ecstasy and/or other illicit stimulants.

We found both samples of people commonly reported encounters with drug dogs in locations beyond festivals. These occurred most often at public transport hubs and other public places.

Compared with those who regularly inject drugs, those who regularly use ecstasy were more likely to have reported an encounter with drug dogs in non-festival settings over the last 12 months (32% and 21%, respectively). By contrast, we found people who inject drugs were over three times more likely to report being stopped and/or searched by police, and to experience criminal justice consequences, despite being no more likely to be carrying drugs at the time of encounter.

Why do you think people who inject drugs are more likely to be subject to stop and search encounters?

We cannot provide a definitive reason for this discrepancy. However, it seems plausible that it is reflective of sociodemographic differences between the two samples. That is, our sample of people who inject drugs experience much higher levels of social disadvantage and previous engagement with the criminal justice system.

Existing evidence indicates that prior interactions with police increase the likelihood of a stop and/or search encounter with police drug dogs. It also shows people who inject drugs often experience police harassment, violence, and stigmatising language. Although the latter of these accounts relate to police encounters more broadly, it could be argued that drug detection dogs are being used in Australia as tools to target, harass, and criminalise the most marginalised groups of people who use drugs in society.

So, is it time to stop using police drug detection dogs?

Continued use of drug detection dogs may exacerbate health and social harms to an already marginalised group. Such strategies are also in conflict with Australia’s national drug strategy objective of harm minimisation, and with Australia’s commitments under human rights laws to provide access to health care and to protect individuals, families and communities from drug related harm. Further, they take up valuable resources. Indeed, the NSW drug detection dog program has cost taxpayers $46 million over the past decade. Imagine how much additional prevention, treatment or harm reduction services could be funded with that money. 

Our findings, combined with the existing research, suggest police drug dogs are expensive, yet ineffective and inequitable. They should be removed from all community settings, including music festivals, public transportation hubs, and other public places.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Conversation on 26 October 2023, which is available here: https://theconversation.com/drug-detection-dogs-often-get-it-wrong-and-its-a-policing-practice-that-needs-to-stop-215436

Original papers can be found here: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2023.104223;  https://doi.org/10.1111/dar.13601