Zoe suffers bipolar disorder and smokes pot to alleviate the symptoms. Last week the 37-year-old was on a train with a friend heading toward Redfern station, in Sydney, Australia. She'd just scored some weed prior to arriving, so she checked the Sniff Off Facebook page to see if any drug-detecting dogs were around. "Luckily we checked and found they were waiting. It was posted ten minutes before," Zoe said. "So we went through to Wynyard station and got off there."
Established in October last year, the Sniff Off campaign is a New South Wales Greens initiative to end the use of drug detection dogs without a warrant in public places. The Facebook page provides a platform for members of the community to alert one another to the whereabouts of sniffer dogs, either posting directly onto the page or sending a message to admin.
The Sniff Off campaign is run out of NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge's office. He said the dogs are "a serious affront to people's civil liberties." And went on to say "they tend to be targeted, particularly against young people, Aboriginal people, and the homeless." A case in point is Redfern station, where a passenger is six and a half times more likely to be searched than at Central, another station known for regular sniffer-dog deployments. Redfern has a large Aboriginal population and many students live in the area as well.
Shoebridge points out that the operation isn't aimed at drug supply, but rather targets personal use."There's no evidence that drug dealers routinely use Sydney's public transport network," he explained.
Figures recently obtained from the NSW police minister show that in 2014 of the 14,593 searches undertaken by NSW Police following a positive sniffer dog indication, 10,763 found no illicit drugs. That's a 74 percent false positive rate. Shoebridge highlighted the statistics for NSW Police Transport Command, saying that of the 3,592 searches carried out, 2,871 found no drugs. "We're talking hundreds and hundreds of people being routinely humiliated, when the police know they're going to be wrong 80 percent of the time," he said.
Tom is a 28-year-old electrician who experienced one such false indication at Ashfield station. "I walked past the dog, then the cop grabbed me and asked me to come back," he said. "The dog wasn't really that interested, but then the cop was like, 'The dog's detected drugs on you.'"
Tom was taken into a public toilet cubicle. After the police patted him down, he was asked to remove his clothes. "Having to get naked in a small space with a pair of large men with guns strapped to their hips was humiliating." He believes the police were profiling, as he spoke to another man who'd also been searched. He "was almost a dead ringer" for Tom and didn't have any drugs on him either.
Situations like these are why Sniff Off volunteers such as Zevic Mishor set up the site. As he explained, the campaign has two aims. The first is to bring about legislative change that will revoke NSW Police powers to carry out drug-dog searches in places like train stations and music festivals. On May 28 this year, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong introduced the Amendment (Sniffer Dogs—Repeal of Powers) Bill 2015 that if passed will have this effect.
The second is to build up grassroots support and that's where the posts come in. Not only do they warn people about the presence of dogs, they also draw public attention to how often the police are out there using them. "We don't want to live in a society where there are uniformed officers with dogs at train stations," Mishor said.
Despite the outcry from the Greens, NSW Police maintain that drug detection dogs are very effective. "Seventy percent of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs," a spokesperson told VICE, emphasizing that dogs have a strong deterrent effect, as "individuals regularly dump these drugs upon seeing" them. The drugs aren't consumed, "the significant risk of harm" is avoided, and deaths are prevented.
Will Tregoning, a director of drug-reform group Unharm, disagrees. He argues the presence of sniffer dogs incentivizes behavior that can cause overdoses and especially at music festivals. These include "hiding drugs in internal body cavities" in packaging such as condoms. He said dogs encourage people to take "all of the drugs they have in their possession at once," as well as the practice of preloading—the consumption of all drugs prior to arriving at a venue.
As a harm reduction measure, Tregoning advocates drug checking. This is a service where people can test the contents and purity of the illicit drugs they've purchased. "It's a form of quasi-market regulation," he said, explaining that in the Netherlands, "it's eliminated or reduced the prevalence of some of the more risky substances."
Those making use of Sniff Off are not the only people working to avoid drug-detecting dogs. Innerwest trans activist Stephanie McCarthy has been searched six times over the last year, although she's never had any drugs on her. She recently had an eye-opening experience while on board a train stopped at a station. "The driver said, 'There's a police operation at Newtown involving sniffer dogs. They'll be entering the train,'" McCarthy said. "He basically warned everyone. When you have a train driver doing that, it kind of says it's not really a fair policy."
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