When it comes to drugs, man's best friend could be more of a hindrance than a help.
A sniffer dog at Bestival in 2014. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images
This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
Last week, the University of Sheffield students' union announced it will start deploying sniffer dogs at the university's union bar. The move follows the death of 22-year-old Joana Burns, and the hospitalisation of another young woman, after the pair took drugs believed to be MDMA at a club night there.
The introduction of dogs is one condition imposed on the venue after a review of its licence, in which police alleged there is an "underlying issue of drugs supply and consumption on the premises" – a claim the university denies. However, critics say the introduction of dogs is either essentially pointless, or could potentially end up doing more harm than good.
"This is classically ill-conceived knee-jerk posturing," says Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "If the university is serious about avoiding further tragedies they should invest in proven nightlife drug harm reduction measures. We should follow the evidence of what will keep people safe, not futile enforcement grandstanding."
The use of sniffer dogs has long been a contentious issue, and the campaign to see them removed from the UK's club and festival queues gained further credence after the death of 17-year-old Emily Lyon last year. Emily had taken two huge bombs of MDMA on her way to an event at the 02 Arena, fearing that she wouldn't be able to get her drugs past the guards with sniffer dogs on the door. "She was determined to have a good night," the inquest was told, in what is likely the most succinct and tragic ode to doomed youth you'll ever read.
"Recent research has shown that dogs often indicate on the basis of what they sense they want their handlers to do."
It's cases like this that concern those opposed to sniffer dogs; people tend to be more worried about the legal ramifications of being caught with drugs than what the drugs might actually do to them if they take them all in one go.
Worse still, there's not a wealth of research on the effectiveness of the so-called "passive alert detection dogs", but everything there is points to their unreliability. In the early 2000s, research conducted in Australia showed that after 10,000 searches instigated by a sniffer dog, drugs were found in only 26 percent of cases. In a 2008 operation at the UK's Latitude Festival, this figure was even lower, with just 12 percent of searches resulting in a find. In 2011, research in California into how handlers' bias affected the actions of the dog found overwhelmingly that our canine friends were influenced by the human controlling them.
Amber Marks, lecturer in law at QMUL and author of Headspace – which concerns the absurdity of sniffer dogs and other dodgy surveillance methods – says: "For a while, police dogs were deemed to be a useful means of justifying stop and searches, as they could be described as being conducted on 'objective' grounds; the idea that dogs – like machines – don't make decisions based on inaccurate stereotypes. Not only is this not the case, but recent research has shown that dogs often indicate on the basis of what they sense they want their handlers to do."
"The key danger is that if people see the dogs and panic, they may 'pre-load' and quickly consume any drugs on their person"
So with evidence as damning as this, and Amber far from isolated in her opinion, why are sniffer dogs even still a thing?
"I think the conversation abut police dogs has to happen in the wider context of a conversation about what public health and public safety actually is," says Alan Miller of the Night Time Industries Association. "It's not really anything to do with the law or public health, but watching numbers. The facts and the evidence show [sniffer dogs] don't help, but the current regulatory environment is one increasingly about having pieces of paper, and signs, and rules."
In a nutshell: instead of the dogs serving a true public health purpose, they're there to tick a box, so the council and a budget-strapped police can claim, on paper, that they're doing their bit in keeping people safe on their beat. In 2015, fabric – aided by evidence from Fiona Measham, co-founder of drugs harm reduction company The Loop – successfully appealed against the use of sniffer dogs. Nearly a year later, when fabric won its appeal against closure following a spate of drug-related deaths on the premises, sniffer dogs were not included in the raft of security measure imposed.
It might be possible to read some significance into this in regards to nightclubs, but the dogs will still be a regular presence on the gates of many festivals; furry weekend vibe-killers lording it up in their olfactory reign of terror.
"The key danger is that if people see the dogs and panic, they may 'pre-load' and quickly consume any drugs on their person," says Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF). "As AIF has demonstrated through our work supporting MAST [the pioneering onsite festival drug-testing carried out by The Loop], all festivals have a zero tolerance approach, but we must approach the issue pragmatically. Ultimately, the approach needs to be about harm reduction and the duty of care to the audience."
Of course, the fact remains that searches are a condition you accept whenever you purchase a festival ticket, but the knowledge that you might be frisked isn't enough to tempt people into downing their stash; it's the presence of dogs that does. So is there anything pragmatic we can do to protest against their use?
"You can write to the festival organisers or nightclub owners," says Amber. "They can use your complaints as a reason for objecting to the police making their use a requirement of their license." The Night Time Industries Association also has a campaign you can use to contact councillors directly, called #Savenightlife. In fact, you should probably sign that anyway.
On a more prosaic level, we all – authorities, venues, clubbers, festival-goers – need to help each other get smarter. Get yourself educated about the drugs you're putting in your body and, if you're at an event where The Loop are testing, get the drugs tested. Don't pre-load and don't make the same mistakes those poor girls in Sheffield and London did: a night out just isn't worth it, no matter how determined you are.
UPDATE 21/07/17: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Sheffield Hallam University's student union bar had introduced the use of sniffer dogs, when in fact dogs are now being used at the student union bar at The University of Sheffield.
More from our Safe Sesh editorial series: