Should Police Still Be Using Sniffer Dogs? Exclusive Interview With Sniff Off!

Canines are often called man's best friend. However, their powerful noses can be a drug user's worst enemy. We spoke with David Shoebridge who runs Sniff Off, a group dedicated to helping the public deal with sniffer dogs.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Less than a fortnight ago, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) made history when it legalized cannabis for recreational use. As a result, adults can now possess 50 grams of cannabis per household, and grow up to two plants.

However, in the rest of Australia, the story isn't quite as uplifting.

Not only is cannabis illegal in all other states, but it's looking like the police are actually upping the ante when it comes to drug possession, rather than following ACT's lead.

In New South Wales, the number of strip searches for drugs has increased almost 20-fold since 2006, jumping from 277 to an enormous 5,483 searches last year.

And this is largely thanks to the prevalence of sniffer dogs. If a dog indicates that you may have an illicit substance on you, then the police are able to search you.

Sniffer dogs will often accompany police outside train stations, festival entrances, bars, pubs, and clubs, so that they may sniff out illicit substances like marijuana and MDMA.

Critics of this approach argue that sniffer dogs aren't reliable enough to justify strip-searching someone, and few critics have been more vocal than David Shoebridge.

David shoebridge
David Shoebridge, founder of Sniff Off

Smells Like Trouble

David Shoebridge is a member of the NSW Greens Party, and also runs the Facebook Group called 'Sniff Off,' a site dedicated to alerting members of the public when and where sniffer dogs are being used, as well as the rights that people have surrounding strip searches.

When asked about his impetus for beginning Sniff Off, Mr. Shoebridge responded:

"Experience and evidence speak for why sniffer dogs shouldn't be used. They're wrong an overwhelming majority of the time."

"They're almost exclusively used to target minority groups and the disadvantaged, and they don't go after the big-time drug dealers. They're looking for the kid with $20 worth of weed on them or a single pill for a night out."

On that note, Mr. Shoebridge is largely correct. Studies performed across Australia have found that when a sniffer dog indicates that you might be carrying an illicit substance, they're wrong roughly 74% of the time.

And on the topic of catching people for drug possession rather than dealers, it seems this is also true. A 2019 study found that "the main target group has remained young males detected for use/possession offenses."

While the U.S. and Canada look to expunge the records of those with non-violent drug possession charges, Australia appears to be ramping up their efforts to ensure more of these people end up in jail.

If a sniffer dog were a doctor or a lawyer, I'd recommend seeking help elsewhere.

David Shoebridge, Greens MP and Founder of Sniff Off

Though one must ask, do sniffer dogs reduce drug use? Is there a method to the madness?

On this note, unsurprisingly, Mr. Shoebridge says no, there isn't. In fact, he says the opposite – that sniffer dogs encourage people to use drugs in a more dangerous way.

"Experience tells us that the sort of heavy-handed police presence we're seeing at festivals runs completely contrary to minimizing drug use – when young people see the police and the sniffer dogs, they panic and take everything they've got on them, and that's when things can go wrong," Shoebridge said.

In NSW, police have adopted a hardline approach to drug-taking at festivals, in which festival-goers often aren't permitted entrance if a sniffer dog suspects them of possession.

As a result, many adolescents are simply downing their drugs before entering the festival, which has led to overdoses and fatalities in several cases.

The harsh stance follows a series of health concerns involved with illegal pills, in which the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian warned drugtakers "Do not take ecstasy. It can injure you for life or it can kill you."

Many have urged the PM to consider pill-testing, to ensure at the very least, that the drugs people are taking aren't laced with a dangerous chemical.

Instead, however, Berejiklian has responded that she doesn't want to give a "green light" to drug takers, and has instead maintained NSW's harsh stance on drugs.

Police Dogs
(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

NSW's current hard stance on drugs shares parallels to the vaping crisis occurring in the US and Canada, in which people are being harmed by consuming dangerous products they've procured on the black market.

Though while NSW remains steadfast in its approach to drug users, the majority of the public seems hungry for a different approach.

According to a poll carried out by the Guardian, 63% of voters supported pill testing, in conjunction with trained counselors who would provide risk-reduction advice at events where drugs are typically taken.

The latest National Drug Strategy Household survey from 2016 also found that 73.9% of Australians do not support the possession of cannabis being a criminal offense.

By far the largest impact is that regular people wouldn't be subject to arbitrary strip searches that overwhelmingly achieve nothing except infringe on peoples' civil liberties.

David Shoebridge, Greens MP and Founder of Sniff Off

And running sniffer dog programs isn't cheap either, as Mr. Shoebridge informs us, costing the NSW government close to $10 million each year to maintain.

"The costs of running the sniffer dog program in NSW are very real."

"Over $9 million every year to just run the dog squad, excluding the salaries of the thousands of police officers required to accompany the operations during the year," he said.

Sniffer dogs were introduced to NSW following the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and have been used ever since. If Mr. Shoebridge's estimations are correct, that means NSW alone has spent close to $200m since then.

Meanwhile, U.S. states like Colorado, have brought in over $1 billion dollars from taxes placed on cannabis sales in the past five years.

Furthermore, teenage marijuana consumption in states that had enacted medical cannabis laws was actually 1.1 percent lower than states that hadn't, suggesting that legalization doesn't necessarily give adolescents the "green light," as the NSW premier argues.

If you want teenagers to stop doing drugs entirely, you're going to be severely disappointed. And if you want them to stop consuming unknown pills at festivals, drug dogs don't seem to be the answer either.

When it comes to cannabis, a sniffer dog only seems to re-affirm how inconspicuous this drug truly is, in that only the advanced smelling capacities of a canine can detect it. This seems to be a sentiment Mr. Shoebridge shares.

"The vast majority of the negative effects associated with cannabis use don't actually have anything to do with the use of cannabis – it's to do with the heavy handed policing that's come about due to the war on drugs."

"In cases where there are issues that have come about due to cannabis use, we propose that it's treated as a health issue because that's exactly what it is," Shoebridge said.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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