Drug dogs were introduced at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. After the Olympics a law was passed for police to use drug dogs in licensed premises, any public transport in NSW, specified areas of Sydney, and where warrants are issued, that is, every music festival in NSW. Trouble is, they are woefully innaccurate. Sniffer dogs get it wrong 80% of the time on public transport, and 60 to 80% of the time in other areas.
David Shoebridge MLC is the Greens MP who is shining an uncomfortable spotlight on the absurd and socially biased drug laws and police practices in NSW which have equivalents in Queensland and all other states. He spoke at the Hemposium at Nimbin Mardigrass last weekend.
“Can you imagine any other government program that gets it wrong three quarters of the time and had been wrong three quarters of the time for the 16 years it had been in operation, continuing in those circumstances? The drug dogs cost tax payers about nine and a half million dollars a year and that doesn’t include all the on-costs. Every time you have a drug dog and it’s handler at a music festival, there is a requirement that there are 12 duty police to assist. That’s an extraordinary use of resources. If you’re a well heeled member of the community, you can actually hire the police by the hour. It costs at least $2,000 per hour for the dog, handler and 12 police. At music festivals they can have up to seven dogs. Secret Garden had seven dogs. If you do the math, it cost about $100,000 just to have drug dogs there that get it wrong (up to) 80% of the time.”
Shoebridge says that drug dogs are more often responding to the subconscious signals from their handlers and that research from ecstasy users shows that if you walk past the police with an air of confidence, you are more likely to be left alone. There is a more tragic downside to drug dogs at music festivals: “In those queues at music festivals, for a lot of young people, it may be the first time they’ve been at a music festival, and when they see the police coming they get super anxious. They may have five pills on them when they see the police and we have this thing called ‘panic ingestion’. We’ve lost lives because of that panic ingestion. So far from being harm reduction, it is harm creation. If you’re going to have drug dogs, at least have an amnesty bin so if they are panicked they can dispose of those drugs safely instead of ingesting them.”
The Greens have used an effective civil disobedience campaign since 2014, a Facebook page called ‘Sniff Off’. It is a site that allows people to post where drug dogs are in the community so people can avoid them. The police cottoned on to it eventually and started posting false locations. It didn’t work. “They weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. They all had their profiles on there and they all went to Charles Sturt University which is where every police officer went. We had a directive issued so that police could no longer get onto ‘Sniff off’.” Since starting ‘Sniff Off’ the number of drug dog searches in NSW has halved. There is no equivalent to Sniff Off at this time in Queensland.
Shoebridge also has issue with Mobile / Roadside Drug Testing: “Mobile Drug Testing is not random, it’s targeted, it’s crap. They are looking for the smallest detectable amount of just 3 illegal drugs: cannabis, MDMA and methamphetamine. The police now have the resources to do 100,000 of these searches a year. If you have the tiniest scintilla of the drug detected on the oral swab test, you get taken out of the car and the oral swab gets put into a more substantial machine called the Drager 5000 and if that shows a positive result, you lose your license for 24 hours and that sample goes to the lab. If you pass the Drager 5000 test you can drive but the sample still goes to the drug lab. What’s wrong with that? Well, it’s not really about roadside safety is it? Because if they are looking for the tiniest amount of cannabis, that could have no impact on your driving, zero impairment. The impact can be absolutely crushing. It’s like losing your license because you had a beer at a barbecue the day before. It has no rational connection with road safety.”
He says it is a viciously targeted police program at lower socio-economic areas and is not about road safety. He cited statistics about these areas where police convictions are 30 to 50 times more likely to occur than higher socio-economic areas, including South West Sydney and the Tweed and Byron Shires.
Shoebridge is clear that if you are impaired by drugs or alcohol, you should not be on the roads and the Greens do support RBT for alcohol for that reason. “If you are impaired by drugs on the road, it should not matter whether the drug is legal or illegal, the test should be an impairment based test and the police should be getting people who are impaired off the roads. When you look at the data (Wolf report), the drugs most likely to impair drivers are benzodiazepines which are a major cause of road trauma. But someone can be zonked to their eyeballs on benzos and get stopped at one of these roadside MDTs and get waived through.”
Cocaine is another sticking point. “Cocaine use in NSW is at a 15 year high and particularly Sydney, and particularly one part of Sydney is at an extremely high level of cocaine use and it turns out it’s the electorate of Wentworth which happens to be the Prime Minister’s electorate.” Testing has been done by analysing sewerage treatment plants from various parts of Sydney by the National Crime Authority. That part of Sydney (Wentworth) consumes between one to one and a half kilograms of cocaine every weekend. “Roadside drug testing ignores cocaine testing yet pulls people off the roads for a tiny bit of cannabis. Cannabis tends to be used by people of lower socio-economic means than cocaine. Cocaine is the drug of the wealthy. We (the Greens) have been hammering the failure to test for cocaine. People in the wealthy suburbs are getting off scott free while they’re smashing people on cannabis. On Wednesday last week we finally voted through laws that put cocaine on the list of drugs that will be roadside tested. The wealthy, well healed and well connected people (in NSW) are going to be subjected to the same crappy roadside testing as the rest of us.”
If caught in New South Wales you can apply for a section 10 in the Magistrates Court which means you can get a dismissal of the charge. You can only do this once. If caught again, you lose your licence. In Queensland you can apply for a section 19, no conviction recorded, and you can apply for a ‘work licence’ to allow you to drive to and from work. NSW does not have a work licence.
To contact David Shoebridge go to firstname.lastname@example.org
The facebook Sniff Off page is here: Sniff Off