Talking Points Against Drug Sniffing Dogs

The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) will hold a public hearing for people to offer their opinions on whether or not it is acceptable for them to use drug sniffing dogs in their efforts to keep Worcester State Hospital (and possibly other hospitals) free of drugs. Laws have already been amended to allow for the use of drug sniffing dogs in these facilities (see section in red HERE). In September, DMH will also be holding a public hearing to help them decide whether or not they will actually take advantage of these new changes. The hearing will take place on September 12 from 2pm to 4pm in Boston. You can learn more on the details of the hearing HERE. Comments can be offered there verbally or in writing (or both) or by e-mail (no later than September 12) This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We offer the following talking points for your consideration below:

* Drug sniffing dogs are wrong a majority of the time. According to research, false positives (a dog alerting to the presence of drugs when drugs are not ultimately found) ranges from about 63 to 82% of the time. (RMIT ABC Fact Check)

* Drug sniffing dogs are heavily influenced by the bias of their handlers. For example, one study found that drug sniffing dogs had an accuracy rate of 44% during stopped vehicle checks, but that that accuracy rate dropped to 27% when the driver was latinx. (Chicago Tribune)

* One study on drug sniffing dogs found that simply placing red sheets of paper that handlers were told were the markers for where drugs were placed led to significant false positives (a dog alerting to the presence of drugs when drugs were not present). There were no actual drugs on the premises during this study. (Big Think)

* Discrimination against people with psychiatric diagnoses is already rampant. One study found that 70% of people with psychiatric diagnoses reported experiencing direct examples of discrimination. (BMJ) People experience psychiatric oppression and discrimination in seeking housing, employment, health services, and in pretty much every other aspect of their lives. It contributes to early death in a variety of ways, including when people with psychiatric diagnoses are not taken seriously when they complaint of medical issues. For example, there is documented evidence that someone with a psychiatric diagnoses will receive inferior care for conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. (International Review of Psychiatry) We also regularly see people who are forced (via Rogers Orders) to take psychiatric drugs they don't want to take, even when they are experiencing serious and visible medical consequences (e.g., evidence of neurological damage being done such as falling, shaking, etc.). In fact, people with psychiatric diagnoses face serious discrimination when it even comes to having what they say be believed. One article on this topic offered the following: "...A primary feature of the experience of staying in a psychiatric hospital is that you will not be believed about anything. A corollary to this feature: Things will be believed about you that are not at all true." (Buzzfeed)

* Conditions in psychiatric hospitals are routinely poor. An increasing number of stories are hitting the media where people have been tortured (Hartford Courant), neglected, and expected to engage in meaningless activities under threat of being labeled uncooperative or non-compliant. (Psychology Today) In other words, the evidence of psychiatric discrimination  in psychiatric hospitals is substantial and indisputable.

* We've already seen evidence of psychiatric discrimination in Worcester State Hospital not only according to many people currently or previously hospitalized there, but also in the actions of the state when they placed severe restrictions primarily on people hospitalized and not on the staff in spite of research clearly indicating that when drugs enter a prison (Prison Policy Initiative) or psychiatric facility (ABC), staff typically play a large role.

* Additionally, from the information offered ddirectly from people hospitalized so far, it would seem that when staff bring in drugs, they pass them along to people hospitalized there to distribute (much like it tends to happen in priosns). This also points to the reality that staff may be responsible, but people hospitalized there are most likely to end up blamed and experiencing related consequencs.  

* There is no reason to believe that drug sniffing dogs in Worcester State Hospital (or any other psychiatric facility) will not lead to additional discrimination against and oppression of the most marginalized people involved: Those who are hospitalized.

* The mere presence of drug sniffing dogs - that is to say, the moment they are brought onto the property - will inevitably increase the sense of being in a hostile, adversarial, and prison-like environment. As one review found, it creates environments where everyone is a suspect. (ACLU) This will further decrease any therapeutic value or impact the hospital is able to have even on people who are not involved in or using the drugs that are coming in.

* Meanwhile, abstinence-based, locked environments (prison, hospital, or treatment center) actually raise the likelihood that someone will overdose and die when they leave that environment. In fact, one study found that "Patients who 'successfully' completed inpatient detoxification were more likely than other patients to have died within a year." (BMJ)

* There are other options: Increase harm reduction education on safer usage strategies (important and potentially life saving whether someone is using while incarecerated or out in the community). Create more supports where people can talk openly about any problems with drugs that they may be having (including psychiatric drugs!), including welcoming conversations among people who are not wanting to stop using. Bring in more trained Recovery Coaches and other people in peer support roles who've had problems with substances themselves. Improve hospital conditions so that people have more options for what they can do, and help decrease the sense of isolation and hopelessness that might drive them to use more. And most importantly, stop hospitalizing people against their will, and create more well-supported community options where people are trained in harm reduction approaches.