Defqon.1 Drugs Death Reignites Sniffer Dogs Debate

Last month, Sydney’s annual Defqon.1 dance music festival was marred by tragedy when 23-year-old James Munro, who had driven overnight from Melbourne to attend, died of a drug overdose.

In an interview with the ABC this week
, James Munro‘s devastated father Stephen said that “There was a police presence at the gates and a concern he would be detected”, which he believes prompted his son to ingest what doctors were later told were three ecstasy pills that he had in his possession, prior to entering. Within half an hour he had collapsed, and was rushed to hospital, where he suffered several heart attacks and fell into a coma from which he never awoke.

James Munro no doubt knew that the pills he was taking were dangerous when taking one individually, let alone three at once. However upon seeing the police and sniffer dogs at the gates, he, (like many other festival-goers who choose to take drugs) weighed up the risk versus the reward, and chose to ingest what he had, rather than dispose of the pills or risk being caught with them in his possession.

Earlier this year, music website Tone Deaf published an opinion piece which quoted a 2011 report released by NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, which “showed that according to NSW Police figures, in a staggering 80 per cent of cases sniffer dogs came up with a false positive. In other words, in 8 out of 10 times, the dogs were wrong. The report showed that in 2011 New South Wales police officers carried out 14,102 searches on people as a result of a sniffer dog indicating the presence of an illegal drug. Of those searches, illicit substances were not found on 11,248 occasions.”

A false positive from a sniffer dog can and does lead to frisking, belongings search, strip search and even a cavity search. The report quoted Shoebridge as saying “No test which has an 80 per cent error rate could be considered a reasonable basis on which to conduct an intrusive public search of a citizen going about their daily business”. The question then arises – is it worth it?

Is what some would call an inconvenience, (others a massive invasion of civil rights and privacy), for those 80 per cent who are detected as a “false positives” worth it to detect the other 20 per cent of “true positives”, when festival attendees like James Munro, or 17-year-old Gemma Thom who died in similar circumstances at the 2009 Big Day Out, are simply going to choose to ingest copious amounts of drugs in a short space of time anyway, while either not knowing or choosing to ignore the potential dangers of doing so?

In his response to the figures, the parliamentary secretary for police acknowledged that “there is an element of error” in using sniffer dogs, and justified their presence at festivals, saying that the dogs “also create an element of fear in people with drugs.” This may be true, but given that it is this fear that is indirectly causing people to ingest a sometimes lethal level of drugs at the gates, rather than hand over or dispose of the substances in their possession, that’s a troubling admission. This was the case with James Munro at Defqon.1 and Gemma Thom at the Big Day Out, and will no doubt be the case for unlucky punters, ignorant of the effects of what they choose to put in their bodies, in the future.

For better or worse, drugs are ingrained in music festival culture as much as the festivals themselves are ingrained in youth culture. As Tone Deaf points out, “the presence of these dogs and the fear and intimidation they’re deliberately used for, can in fact be a grave detriment to the health and wellbeing of those who decide to use drugs.” The fact of the matter is that dogs or no dogs, people are going to continue taking drugs at music festival – James Munro is a prime example of that, as are the other 20 people who overdosed at Defqon.1, as is Gemma Thoms. Coupled with the prevalence of drugs inside the festival (visible to any attendee) showing that not only do the sniffer dogs incorrectly detect drugs where there aren’t, they routinely fail to detect drugs where they are, it becomes clear that an overhaul of the system is required. The resources that go into inaccurately detecting drugs at the gates could be better used to identify those at risk of harm, and minimise the damage done, once inside the gates.