Encounters with police drug detection dogs at music festivals among people who regularly use ecstasy and/or other illicit stimulants
Why did we undertake this study?
Police drug detection dogs (drug dogs) are trained to detect illegal substances (1), with a positive indication from a drug dog often used as justification by police to physically search an individual’s possessions, car, or person (2). In Australia, drug dogs are used in various public settings (3,4), most commonly occurring at festivals, on public transport, and in licensed premises, and in a 2018 global study of people who use drugs, Australia had one of the highest reported incidences of drug dog encounters (1).
Supporters defend the use of drug dogs as a valuable policing tool in combatting drug-related crime (5), however the effectiveness and legality of drug dog operations has been controversial (2,6,7). Existing studies suggest that although anticipation of the presence of drug dogs at music festivals or similar events may result in a small reduction in people’s willingness to carry drugs into these settings (8), most people will continue to carry drugs into events/festivals, taking precautions to conceal them (including in body cavities or swallowing drugs to be retrieved, via purging once inside an event) (9–11), or taking their drugs before entering the venue, otherwise known as preloading (3,9,12). These behavioral responses have the potential to increase risk of overdose and other adverse events (3,9,10,12).
Between December 2017 and January 2019, six young people died while attending music festivals in NSW, of which at least three were linked directly to the presence of drug dogs. The subsequent inquest into these deaths resulted in a recommendation that drug dogs cease to operate at festivals (13), however, this recommendation was not implemented, and drug dogs continue to operate at events across the country.
As a result, it remains important to better understand drug dog encounters at music festivals, how people respond to the expected presence of drug dogs at festivals, and the outcomes of these encounters.
What did the study involve?
We used data from the 2019 Ecstasy and Related Drug Reporting System (EDRS) to describe drug dog encounters at festivals, and how people behaved in anticipation of their presence, amongst a sentinel (i.e., non-representative) sample of people who regularly use ecstasy and/or other illegal stimulants (n=797).
What did we find?
1. Police drug dog encounters remain common amongst people who regularly use ecstasy and/or other illicit stimulants
Two-thirds of the sample (60%) had encountered drug dogs in the last 12 months, of which two-thirds (n=327; 69%) reported encountering drug dogs at a music festival.
2. Despite the majority of participants reporting anticipating police drug dog presence at music festivals, few were deterred from carrying or using illegal drugs
The majority of participants (92%) who encountered drugs dogs reported anticipating this presence, however only 4% reported that they chose not to use illicit drugs. Most (86%) reported some behavioural change to try and avoid detection, most commonly concealing drugs well (57%), followed by one-fifth (20%) who reported consuming drugs prior to entering the festival. One-eighth (13%) reported buying drugs within the festival grounds, with the majority of this group reporting this to be easy or very easy.
3. Measures taken to avoid detection carry potential for increased drug related health, social, and legal harms.
While we didn’t collect information regarding the quantity of drugs consumed before entering a festival, we know from other research that people often attempt to consume an amount of drugs that they would normally space out (14). This, as well as trying to conceal ones drugs well may carry a risk of overdose and other adverse events (9). Buying drugs within closed setting, like a music festival, may lead to purchases of unknown or adulterated substances as people attempt to make opportunistic and inconspicuous transactions, rather than informed decisions regarding known substances and known dealers.
What is the overall take-home message?
Despite growing evidence challenging the effectiveness and legality of drug dog operations, and recommendations to cease operations at music festivals, our findings suggest encounters with drug drugs at music festivals remain common. The vast majority of participants anticipated drug dogs being present at music festivals, however few were deterred from consuming or carrying drugs into the event. Rather, most enacted a range of behaviours to avoid detection, which carry potential health, social, and legal risks. Our findings, combined with the potential for police behaviour (e.g., strip searches) to potentiate traumatic experiences for festival-goers, contribute to concerns regarding the efficacy and appropriateness of this policing initiative.
The full paper can be found here.
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