New Paper: ‘Sniffer’ dogs don’t deter drug use at music festivals, and can cause unintended harm

The use of drug detection dogs as a policing strategy at outdoor music festivals is ineffective as a deterrent to illicit drug use, can lead to unintended harm, and should be urgently reconsidered, according to a new study conducted by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University, and published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

The study is the first to ask festival-goers about their actual behaviour in response to the presence of drug detection dogs at outdoor music festivals in Australia.

It found that among those intending to use illicit drugs at the last event they attended, only 4 per cent changed their mind based on the expectation that drug detection dogs would be present. The vast majority – 96 per cent – of people who intended to use illicit drugs were not deterred by the expected presence of drug detection dogs.

NDRI researcher Jodie Grigg, who led the study of 2000 outdoor music festival-goers in Victoria and Western Australia, said that the threat of drug detection dogs instead resulted in a variety of alternative responses to avoid detection, some of which could be potentially harmful.

“The most common responses from festival-goers included concealing their drugs well, avoiding the dogs on arrival, sending ‘spotters’ ahead to report on police activity, avoiding personal risk by getting ‘braver’ friends or partners to carry their drugs, buying drugs inside the event instead of bringing them, switching to drugs they believe are less likely to be detected, and taking drugs before the festival,” Ms Grigg said.

“Many of these responses have potential adverse effects, such as inherent health risks associated with concealing drugs internally or swallowing to retrieve later, increased risk of hyperthermia from bingeing on drugs before the festival rather than spacing drug use throughout the day, overdose and even death.

Carrying drugs for others inadvertently puts that person at risk of drug supply charges if caught, while purchasing drugs inside the event can leave people more vulnerable to adulterated or misrepresented substances.”

The study also found 10 per cent of festival-goers in possession of illicit drugs reported swallowing them in response to seeing drug detection dogs at the last festival they attended, either as a result of ‘panic consumption’ or planned behaviour in that situation, a response Ms Grigg said was very concerning as it has been directly linked to at least two Australian deaths at past festivals.

Furthermore, the study helped confirm previous findings suggesting ‘sniffer’ dogs are largely ineffective at detecting drugs on festival-goers.

Given this new evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of drug detection dogs as a deterrent, as well as a detector, and the increased risk of drug-related harm they present to festival-goers, the researchers hope the use of dogs is urgently reconsidered, and ideally stopped, and more attention is given to evidence-informed, harm-minimisation responses, such as drug checking.

“Accumulating evidence suggests drug checking services have the capacity to effectively deter festival-goers from using dangerous drugs and using drugs in dangerous ways,” Ms Grigg said.

“Expanding drug checking trials should therefore be considered as one approach to help reduce the risk of harm caused by drug use in these settings.”


Grigg, J., Barratt, M.J. and Lenton, S. (2018). Drug detection dogs at Australian outdoor music festivals: Deterrent, detection and iatrogenic effects. International Journal of Drug Policy. DOI:

For further information contact:

Ms Jodie Grigg, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University
Tel: (08) 9266 1618 Mobile: 0411 572 131 Email:


Professor Simon Lenton, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University
Tel: (08) 9266 1603 Mobile: 0417 957 910 Email:


Communications Officer, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University
Tel: (08) 9266 1627 Mobile: 0414 682 055 Email:

Posted on: 18 Sep 2018

news list