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Drug Dogs Are Sniffing Out The Wrong Crims, Study Suggests

More evidence has shown drug dog programs fail in what they set out to achieve, with suppliers slipping through the nets that pick up low-level drug users and marijuana smokers.

A new study from the University of NSW, published in the Current Issues in Criminal Justice journal, has looked at the effectiveness of the state's drug dog detection program.

Based on data from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, academics claimed sniffer dogs are failing in their stated aim, and are overwhelmingly nabbing young users of cannabis and ecstasy, rather than suppliers of harder and more dangerous drugs.

The dogs were introduced in their current form in 2001, with the aim of addressing crime "relating to the supply of prohibited drugs or plants."

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But those being caught for possession are being picked up with "the least harmful drugs," study author Dr Caitlin Hughes told 10 daily.

"It certainly very much calls into question whether drug dogs can achieve their aim, to target supply," she said.

"This is meant to target supply, but it's 18 times more likely someone will be picked up for possession. It's really not a very effective use of resources."

Along with criminology researcher Winnie Agnew-Pauley, Hughes' study found nearly 87 percent of incidents detected by drug dogs between June 2008 and June 2018 were for possession or use of drugs, while less than five percent were for supply.

In an opinion piece published in The Conversation, the authors wrote that their research showed "it’s time to change our drug dog policies to catch dealers, not low-level users at public events".

Cannabis was the most common drug detected, in 59 percent of cases, with ecstasy next at 18 percent.

Amphetamines, including methamphetamine, were in less than eight percent of cases, cocaine in five percent, and heroin was found in just 0.7 percent of detections.

Public transport (28 percent) and licensed premises (27.5 percent) were the most common locations for dog detections.

The most likely people to be caught by drug dogs were men (83 percent of cases), and by age, those 18-24 (38 percent) and 25-34 (30 percent) were the most common.

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Drug sniffer dogs have come under scrutiny in recent times with data showing the high rate of 'false positives' -- where a dog gives an indication that a person is carrying drugs, which turns out to be incorrect -- which can lead to invasive strip searches, being held up as evidence of unfair policy.

A 2011 study found this figure to be as high as 80 percent, with 11,248 searches from a total of 14,102 finding no drugs.

The policy came under the spotlight in 2018 when NSW Police announced that anyone indicated by a sniffer dog at the Above and Beyond music festival in Sydney would be denied entry to the venue, whether or not they were found to have illicit substances.

A sniffer dog at the Above and Beyond festival (10 News First)

Hughes said the UNSW study showed drug dogs very rarely managed to lead to prosecution or punishment of drug suppliers.

In terms of police action, in 31 percent of cases, people found with drugs were simply handed a cannabis caution.

Future court attendance notices were given to 41 percent of people, while a Bail or No Bail court attendance notice -- described as "the most serious legal action" -- only being given in less than 10 percent of cases.

However, the study also found that in the rare occasions dogs were used at residential properties -- such as during a search warrant -- the likelihood of supply charges being laid vastly increased.

"This shows dogs could have capacity to target supply, but it would require a significant readjustment of how they are deployed," Hughes said.

"If the aim is to target and detect supply, then the police should stop using dogs on weekends and public settings, and use them more at residential premises after information that there is evidence of dealing.

"This could reduce many of the unintended consequences of dogs, reduce civil liberty concerns, and use resources more effectively."