In an effort to stop illicit drug use, one state premier is looking to send drug-detecting dogs into high schools.
The present approach to minimising illicit drug use has been widely been discredited by former police commissioners, politicians and health professionals. Instead of curbing the use of the illegal drugs, it is generally accepted it increases the harms associated with substance use.
However, newly appointed South Australian premier Steven Marshall has decided to utilise this highly ridiculed drug war tactic and send sniffer dogs into to his state’s high schools.
“We don’t think that the concept of sending a police sniffer dog into a school to check whether drugs are present is a massive intrusion,” Mr Marshall told parliament. “They will be doing it in a reasonable and respectful way.”
The premier said the government will be directing SA police commissioner Grant Stevens to develop a protocol that will allow drug dogs to be sent into schools to conduct searches, which would involve searching classrooms and locker rooms, but not students themselves.
Increasing the harms
“This proposal is at best incredibly damaging and at worst alarmingly harmful,” warned Nevena Spirovska, the Victorian convener of drug law reform organisation Unharm. She outlined that sending in the dogs is basically “criminalising” high school students.
The harm reduction advocate outlined that drug dog operations in schools will “traumatise marginalised groups, and make many people, in this case, teenagers, feel like potential suspects,” as well as potentially encouraging dangerous drug taking practices.
Rather than deploying drug dogs, the SA government should be sending in “alcohol and other drug education specialists to teach factual and potentially life-saving information about drugs to students,” Ms Spirovska made clear.
“This plan should be immediately abandoned in favour of a practice that would actually assist any teenager with a substance issue, rather than bringing them into contact with the justice system.”
SA parliament passed legislation to allow the warrantless use of sniffer dogs in public places in 2008. The 2006 NSW Ombudsman report on NSW police drug dog operations revealed that only 26 percent of all searches resulted in illicit drugs being found. In most cases, the drugs detected were only small amounts of cannabis and the program also failed to detect drug dealers.
And despite these early warnings, NSW police continues to be the force that’s the most heavily dependent on drug dogs in the country.
The NSW Greens Sniff Off campaign has been monitoring this flawed program since 2011. Figures obtained by NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge revealed that in that year, 78 percent of searches were false positives: where a drug dog makes an indication, but no illegal drugs are found.
And as far as SA Greens MLC Tammy Franks is concerned, the money being spent on sniffer dog operations should be put “into harm minimisation measures that actually work.” An example of such measure is the recent pill testing trial in Canberra. This is an evidence-based strategy that saves lives and deters drug use.
Targeting public school students
The Marshall government proposal “is purposefully vague and targeted first and foremost at the public system, which to me suggests this is a class and law and order perception game, rather than one focused on reducing drug harms,” said Nick Wallis, the presenter of 3CR’s Enpsychedelia.
Statistical analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data obtained by Mr Shoebridge in 2016 revealed that NSW drug detection dog operations have also been targeting specific populations. This time it was in areas where there was a higher population of young Aboriginal adults.
Wallis’ radio programs is designed to counter mainstream drug narratives. And over the years of talking with experts and punters from music festivals, he’s found that people are “left feeling arbitrarily targeted, humiliated and anxious after searches.”
The SA government has said that individual students will not be searched themselves unless officers have evidence that a student has drugs on them. And while this system will be compulsory for public schools, it will be optional for private schools.
The end of the war
Drug education is the key, Mr Wallis said. But he questions the state of it in schools at present. “There are those out there who think that withholding knowledge, or worse yet, distorting knowledge to reflect a bias toward one particular outcome, will somehow lead to better outcomes.”
“But, drug education can’t operate in isolation of other policy changes,” Wallis went on. “Removing the penalties of use and possession would go a small way to changing how people talk about their own use and what choices in drug use they make.”
Indeed, once a system of decriminalisation was in place, young people that have problematic substance use could seek help without fear of prosecution. But further, if a legal and regulated market were in place, substances that are illegal now would be more difficult for students to obtain.