Activists threaten legal action over ‘draconian’ police drug dog policy

Activists say they plan to take the NSW Police to court after ticket holders were denied entry to a music festival based on the use of drug detection dogs.

Police speak to activists.

Police speak to activists. Source: SBS

Activists say they plan to go to court over a controversial drug dog policy that saw at least five ticket holders denied entry to a Sydney music festival, even though no drugs were found on them.

Two sniffer dogs were used to detect drugs on attendees of the Above & Beyond music festival in Sydney on Saturday.

Two drug dogs were used to check for drugs among revellers at the Above & Beyond festival.
Two drug dogs were used to check for drugs among revellers at the Above & Beyond festival. Source: SBS

Ticket holders were taken to a search area beyond the initial entry point and out of sight of media cameras.

NSW Police outlined their plan on Tuesday to refuse entry to ticket holders if a sniffer dog sits next to them – even if no drugs are found.

“Police will exclude any person from the venue that the drug dog indicates has or who has recently had drugs on them, regardless of whether drugs are located,” NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell said when announcing the policy.

“Quite simply, if you handle or use drugs you will not be permitted to remain at the venue."

'Serious abuse of police powers'

The "Sniff Off" campaign, which is backed by the NSW Greens, said they had spoken to ticket holders who were denied entry to the event, even after a search failed to turn up any drugs.

Spokesman Tom Raue said the actions were draconian.

"I don't think that it is fair that police can kick you out of a concert for no reason whatsoever,” he told SBS News.

“They've already put you through a humiliating search based on an indication from a dog they knew was probably wrong. It turned out actually to be wrong. And to be still denied entry? It just boggles the mind."

Campaigners said they intended to take the NSW Police to court over the denial of entry to ticket holders based on a test which yielded no drugs.

“We’ve just spoken to party-goers at Above and Beyond who have been refused entry after being searched even though no drugs were found on them,” campaigners said in a post on Facebook.

“This is a serious abuse of police powers and we will see the NSW Police Force in court next week.”

No evidence of deterrent effect from drug dog policy, activists say

Earlier in the night, police stopped campaigners from handing out flyers outside the Sydney Olympic Park venue, citing the .

Tom Raue, who was a plaintiff in an unsuccessful attempt to secure an injunction preventing the police plan, said the volunteers who attempting to inform people of their rights.

“We're just handing out flyers about people's rights and statistics about the drug dog program. Clearly that has upset the police. They don't want us to do this,” he said.

He said the use of drug dogs are ineffective and rejected claims that the policy has had a deterrent effect.

“There is no evidence that the drug dog program has ever had a deterrent effect. In fact, all the criminology studies show otherwise. Experienced drug users get drugs into festivals no matter what.

“We should have pill testing and measures that actually reduce the harm of drug use, instead of increase the harm; which is what the drug dog program does, which encourages people to swallow a whole bunch of pills quickly to avoid detection.”

On Friday, NSW Supreme Court Justice Michael Pembroke to pre-emptively stop the drug dog policy from being implemented at Saturday's festival.

"We don't waste our time with hypothetical issues like that," he said.

Two men charged with drug-related offences

NSW Police said two men had been charged with drug-related offences at the Above & Beyond festival. 

A 25-year-old man was allegedly found with 98 MDMA tablets and charged with supply of a prohibited drug and knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime.

An 18-year-old man from Belfield was charged with possessing a prohibited drug.

Thirteen people were refused entry to Above & Beyond because of intoxication, four others were issued with court attendance notices for drug possession, and five people received a refund for their tickets after being refused entry into the festival.

Use of drug dogs 'questionable'

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties said the use of drug dogs by police has gone too far.

“The use of drug dogs are questionable in so many ways. These dogs were introduced to catch dealers, not users,” the council's president, Stephen Blanks, told SBS News.

“And police shouldn't be actively trying to capture criminalised users of illegal drugs. There should be a public safety focus on drug use. And at music festivals that means there should be pill testing facilities like there was in the ACT.”

The ACT became first Australian jurisdiction to hold a pill testing trial at the Groovin the Moo Canberra music festival on 29 April 2018.

The service involves staff testing a small sample of a pill and then supplying users with the results and information on the risks of consuming the substances.

Pill testing facilities are being used in 20 countries in Europe, the Americas and New Zealand.

Mr Raue said he is concerned that the drug dog policy used at Above & Beyond could become standard procedure at other music festivals.

“It is not the way they have been doing it so far. They tried this before at Midnight Mafia, and now again at Above & Beyond," he said.

“We can't let this become normal because it is a massive overreach of their powers.”

The plan has also been labelled as "too much" and an overreach of police powers by the former commissioner of the Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, who spent more than three decades in drug enforcement.

"Festival drugs are risky granted but a person can have minute drug traces from handling cash, infused into garment fabric etc," he posted on Twitter earlier this week.

"Using an 'indication', as they call it, to ban entry into a social event is too much."

A 2006 report by the NSW Ombudsman found the use of drug dogs to be an "ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers".

"Overwhelmingly, the use of drug detection dogs has led to public searches of individuals in which no drugs were found, or to the detection of (mostly young) adults in possession of very small amounts of cannabis for personal use," the  said.

6 min read
Published 10 June 2018 at 12:44pm
By Biwa Kwan