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Victoria Police Find No Drugs In Over Half Of Festival Searches

9 January 2024 | 2:08 pm | Jessie Lynch

Out of the 277 people searched at music festivals in the 2022-23 period, drugs were not found in 157 instances.

Sniffer Dog

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Newly released data to the Victorian state parliament has exposed that Victoria Police failed to discover drugs on more than half of the individuals subjected to searches at music festivals.

The information comes after eight attendees at Hardmission Festival in Flemington were hospitalised due to suspected MDMA overdoses over the weekend, reigniting debates on the effectiveness of drug policing in the state.

According to recent data, out of the 277 people searched at music festivals in the 2022-23 period, drugs were not found in 157 instances. Drugs were found 282 times out of 654 searches in 2021-22, but 372 of the searches found no drugs.

The figures, brought to light by Greens MP Ellen Sandell, have prompted crossbench MPs to demand increased transparency regarding the efficiency of drug detection methods, particularly the use of sniffer dogs.

Victoria Police, who have previously resisted freedom of information requests for such data, clarified that sniffer dog-initiated searches should not be solely judged by the absence of drug finds.

A police spokesman stated (as per The Age), “If a person is carrying drugs, odour will permeate into their clothing and remain after the drugs have been removed leaving a residual odour, resulting in a positive illicit drug indication by the dog.”

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“The overwhelming majority of [passive alert detection] dog-initiated searches at music festivals do not result in strip searches, with this outcome extremely rare.”

The use of sniffer dogs, primarily deployed at music festivals and transport hubs, often leads to pat-down searches when the presence of illicit substances is detected. However, critics argue that the searches can be invasive and may not be justified by the mere presence of residue on clothing.

Dr Peta Malins, a senior lecturer in criminology and justice studies at RMIT University, voiced concerns about the effectiveness of sniffer dogs, stating, "They're not effective, they don't deter people, and they actually increase harm."

She suggested that individuals may resort to unsafe drug practices, such as preloading or hiding substances when faced with the presence of police dogs.

While Victoria Police has not publicly reported these figures in annual reports, the recently revealed data provides insight into the statewide scenario of drug searches. The Greens, Libertarian Party, and Legalise Cannabis Party are advocating for greater transparency on this front.

Libertarian Party MP David Limbrick, a long-time advocate for transparency on drug search figures, expressed concerns about the lack of scrutiny of the police's actions.

“I am not the slightest bit surprised by figures about failed searches,” Limbrick said.

“I have been calling for a review of sniffer dogs at festivals and music events since 2019, and noted at the time the lack of transparency. Last year I again requested that annual search data be published. It’s starting to look like police are deliberately avoiding scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, comparisons with New South Wales reveal disparities in data reporting, with NSW conducting more searches and releasing more comprehensive data. In 2022, of the 6529 searches conducted by NSW Police, no drugs were found 75% of the time.