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Police, Fire and Emergency Management – Pill Testing

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 26 November 2020

Tags: Pill Testing

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, the death of six young people aged 18 to 23 across two summers in New South Wales prompted a substantial coronial inquiry in New South Wales which concluded in November last year. Coronor Harriet Grahame found there was compelling evidence to support pill testing because it can, quote 'prompt behavioural change'. She also said -

… high-visibility and punitive policing operations at festivals had 'inherent dangers and few if any benefits' and drug detection dogs should be scrapped.

Her evidence showed that 'a heavy police presence and drug detection dogs could be intimidating'; it could 'precipitate 'panic ingestion' and 'dangerous preloading', which could increase the risk of illness or fatality' amongst vulnerable young people'.

Minister, my question is about the numbers of police presence and dogs at festivals in Tasmania at the Falls Festival. The number of police has reduced over the past three years. It was 33 in 2017 18; 19 in 2018 19; and 17 2019 20. That was the number of people searched by police, but the total number of police has also reduced from 137 to 127. Last year, it was 127. However, the number of dogs has increased over the past four years. It was two dogs a day, and it has now been four dogs a day for the last two years.

Perhaps the Commissioner of Police can speak to why this change has been made to increase the dog presence? What the response of the police has been to the specific recommendations from the coronial inquest which has been widely reported around Australia? Why we are taking a directly opposite stance to the one she recommended to reduce the risk of children dying from dangerous substances?

Mr SHELTON - I thank you for questions. In a general sense it's about pill testing and where we are going. Tasmania Police works closely with music festival organisers to ensure the safety and security of attending patrons. Extensive police resources are provided to complement events and management operations. This includes high-visibility policing, the use of detection dogs, as you mentioned, and emergency response, but, in discussions with the commissioner, dogs are not used in an intimidatory way.

The primary role of Tasmania Police is law enforcement with a particular focus on preventing serious offenders who traffic drugs. The preferred approach of possession of small amounts of personal use drugs is diversion. Offenders found in possession of small amounts of personal use drugs may be eligible to receive a formal caution or a diversion to a health based intervention under the Tasmania Police Illicit Drug Diversion Initiative.

There has been recent community interest in the provision of pill testing at festivals and large events but, as I said, if they are illicit drugs and it is illegal -

Mr HINE - Thank you, minister. I will just give a really general overview and then I will hand over to Mr Higgins.

Basically, at all festivals and in the community in relation to policing of drugs, we are after drug traffickers and that is our focus. It is not individual users, it is drug traffickers. At music festivals drug detector dogs help us do that.

For a more nuanced reply, I will hand over to Mr Higgins.

Mr HIGGINS - It is probably important to note with festivals that the police presence is not all about catching people trafficking or using drugs, it's about making sure that festival is run safely, complementing the security that may be there. We work really closely with the management of the various festivals around the state. Unfortunately, there haven't been any this year but no doubt they'll take hold again in the coming year.

The dogs themselves aren't just drug dogs. We have explosives and firearms dogs and they do act as a deterrent, but they are only a small part of why police are there. We don't do what New South Wales does - where they have the testing regimes, dogs at gates and testing everybody who goes through them; it's not like that. In Tasmania, we have an educative approach which we adopt through most things. We've seen that through recent times, with COVID-19. The interactions between the police and the patron, as we'll call them, are often really positive. The drug detections are really only about those people who are causing harm, not the general user - they are diverted, it's about stopping those people from selling drugs in areas like that will cause that harm.

Dr WOODRUFF - I accept that it's very important to have the police at these festivals. I absolutely accept that; we all understand and agreed that's really important. The question is about perception and the risk perception from young people who already might be out of it, not thinking about it and just freak out - that is the evidence of the coroner - that is the reason that six people died in New South Wales, so I ask again: how is having six dogs at the festival last year at odds with the recommendation?

I accept they are not standing at the gates, but they are still wandering around. I accept we might need them to be there but the fact they are widely visible is, according to the coroner, increasing the risk of preloading and illness and death.

Mr SHELTON - I point out before I hand over again that the dogs are not just there for festivals. The police use them in a number of areas, as has been indicated. Unfortunately, there are illicit drugs in the community and the policing of those, and the dogs, play a vital role in identifying anybody that might be a pusher of drugs. What I am saying is that they are not just there for festivals.

Mr HIGGINS - I reiterate that. The festivals are a small part of our detector dog functions. On a general day-to-day basis, they might be used at arrival ports, under normal circumstances. They will be used in drug searches and in investigators' firearm searches -

Dr WOODRUFF - I am only talking about -

CHAIR - Dr Woodruff, Dr Woodruff -

Dr WOODRUFF - I was just clarifying for Mr Higgins -

CHAIR - Your two questions went longer than the answers, Dr Woodruff. Please allow the answer to get on the record without interruption.