It’s about 9.30 pm when we arrive at the entrance to the Mardi Gras party. The parade is dispersing at Moore Park Road, and punters are wandering up to join the queue. The old Showgrounds, now Fox Studios, has been the venue for this party for almost thirty years.

A dozen police vehicles are parked either side of the entrance, including one that transports drug detection dogs. About sixty uniformed police are standing around. A massive police bus arrives, containing about the same number again.

Opposite the entrance, in the park, is a large temporary enclosure built to process and strip-search people stopped by the dogs. The party entrance itself is clustered with metal barricades forming a sort of holding pen that leads to cattle runs which feed people into the party one by one, a design not unlike airport customs.

I am here with Dr Peta Malins, an RMIT academic who is researching the social and emotional impacts of drug dogs. She has a particular interest in the New South Wales context, where the dogs are much more widely deployed than elsewhere. Unlike Victoria for example, where general drug detection dog use tends to be limited to major festivals and dance parties, in New South Wales – bolstered by a range of powers granted in Part 11, Division 2 of the NSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 – the police take them into bars, nightclubs, train stations, city streets, even public swimming pools. And with areas such as Kings Cross, Redfern and Sydney’s queer nightlife zones singled out for special attention, the social impact of their use becomes particularly interesting.

Also at the party entrance are teams of Fair Play volunteers coordinated by Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC). Fair Play have been monitoring police activity at Mardi Gras since the 2013 police bashing of Jamie Jackson at the parade route, caught on a phone camera and still all over the internet. The victim received $40,000 compensation.

The party is due to open at 10 pm, the queue now about 100 people long. Paul Truscott and Kathy Pavlich, queer elders who work for Mardi Gras, pace about the entrance barking into headsets, conferring with security, brows furrowed. Truscott, ex-president of Sydney Leather Pride, in signature leather cap and chaps, red bandana in left pocket, exudes all kinds of dominance. Pavlich’s security company has worked this party for years. It must be a lucrative gig, with at least twenty guards here at the entrance, and many more inside. Finally the signal comes, and the party opens.

The police fan out, forming a gauntlet alongside the queue. The military precision of the manoeuvre belies their unease. Any Sydneysider who has been to a rally in recent years, or lives in a neighbourhood containing marginalised communities, such as Redfern where I do, will attest to how grim the force has become. But this lot crack awkward jokes. They glance around warily. The queue they face off is exactly what you would expect at Mardi Gras – an intergenerational range of folk dressed up or stripped down for all night dancing, rendering the hostility of this gauntlet demeaning, intimidating and ridiculous all at once.

A policeman is bringing a drug dog down the queue, stopping by a punter almost straightaway. Six uniforms form a circle around them as the dog-handler tells the detainee his rights. Two Fair Players immediately assist, one filming, the other offering an ICLC card to the man’s companion.

The police lead the man to the enclosure. I flank with my camera, managing to get inside briefly. It’s a massive space, about 100 metres square, containing tents and a long table in the open where fines are issued and charges laid. The detainee is facing the wall, hands up, while police pat him down, emptying his pockets.

I haven’t been to this party for ten years; even then it was on a free ticket. The 15,000 crowd is too big for my taste and acts such as Danni Minogue and Delta Goodrem of no interest. More to the point, the $150 price tag is beyond my budget. For this, punters get three dance halls, from 500 to 4000 capacity, four live shows, pluto pups and expensive drinks in plastic cups, and constant interaction with police, security, and cleaners. The run time of 10 pm–6 am must now be the biggest drawcard as Sydney’s lockout laws have reduced the operating hours of, or completely closed down, venues across the inner city. Those of us who have maintained vigorous engagement with our local queer culture while eschewing the Mardi Gras party are legion. All over Sydney this weekend, as for decades past, alternative queer events are going off. Yet the symbolism of this party, which follows the parade, remains strong, and it saddens me to see what it has become.

Many punters seem inured. They shuffle through the gate into the holding pen, driver’s licence or passport (student ID will not do) opened to Pavlich’s muscle bound staff. They stumble over another drug dog, past Mardi Gras volunteers valiantly waving little rainbow flags, calling Happy Mardi Gras! Happy Mardi Gras! like fête touts. They arrive at the cattle runs, arms up obediently for a pat down, emptying their bags. Certain items are confiscated, including any sort of fluid, not only bottles of water but eyedrops, even sealed. I flew in from London three days ago and this is a more arduous threshold than the notorious Heathrow Airport.

The Fair Players do a tremendous job. One, a 78er, is so familiar with the operation that she knows the dog handlers individually. They change shifts every half hour and when a new one arrives she darts away, saying, ‘This guy’s fierce, I’ve gotta be onto him.’ There are about twenty Fair Players in all, mostly lawyers, all volunteers, in special t-shirts. ICLC has booked appointments in advance for the anticipated drug offences.

The cost of the operation must be phenomenal. During the three hours we are there, we see five people detained, all but one released after about twenty minutes. This accords with figures to date that show 64 per cent of searches yield no drugs. More saliently, no dog operation in NSW has caught a major drug dealer.

Police numbers outside have reduced, as many are now inside patrolling the party. The fourth officious tier, after police, security, queer sentinels Truscott, Pavlich and co., is cleaning staff. Several have appeared to clean the queue area. Inside they plié their brooms across dancefloors between punters. Not so much Bacchanalia as bureaucratic bastardry.

At one stage, half a dozen police in bulletproof vests pour into the holding pen. It is impossible to see why. An undercover cop sidles over and hands an activist’s ‘Ditch the Dogs’ leaflet to a group of uniformed police, and they all laugh.

It may be the cameras that have been making them uneasy. Punters, especially those detained, do not seem perturbed. To the contrary – once an intrusion, cameras now in the presence of police provide protection of sorts. I’ve noticed a new t-shirt at rallies: FILM THE POLICE.

We need new numberplates here as well. NSW: POLICE STATE.


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Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor has published five books, the most recent of which Indelible Ink won Age Book of the Year. She has shown her performance art internationally. She is an active volunteer for Unharm, an organisation devoted to drug law reform.

More by Fiona McGregor ›

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  1. Great read, although the sadness is almost palpable. And I hear you. Don’t think I’ll be returning to the Party any time soon.

  2. What a sad state of affairs NSW has become for this to be the response to Alcohol and Drug Policy in the NSW Government … Bring back Bob Carr!!!

    1. it was bob carr who brought in the new police powers act mentioned in the article. although it was brought in under the guise of anti terrorism after 911 but of course only used for drug detection

  3. How strange that we were at the same event and have completely different experiences.

    The only people who I felt entered my personal space were the Fairplay crew – who were sidling up to people whispering their rights. The police kept to themselves, yes the dogs did their job but this is no different to Newtown station on a Friday night. The only time I saw police approach some one was at 4am and the man looked like he was about to OD and with that they were more about care than apprehending.

    I was not asked for ID, I did get in with liquids – a herbal high in liquid and capsule form and I found the mood no different to the past 5 odd years that sniffer dogs have been present. And judging by the elevated spirits of the people in the party, I don’t think the operation killed many peoples buzz.

    Sensational for sensations sake don’t you think?

  4. What a stange article.
    If you are not breaking the law, i.e.: Have no drugs on you, you have nothing to worry about.
    Focus your energy on something worthwhile Fiona.

    1. First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Socialist.
      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Jew.
      Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    2. Actually if you have no drugs you have plenty to worry about! Like being one of the many false positive detections due to handler profiling. And being detained, searched and humiliated for no real reason. If you’re happy with that then fine, but I’m not!

  5. Partygoer sounds like they’re either a police officer, friend of or went to a different party. The police absolutely do not care about party goers, you’re kidding yourself if you think thats their intent. Their sole reason for being at our parties is to intimidate and arrest punters so they use the arrests as an argument for increased budgets. I’ve been going to the party for 15 years and the police presence has unnecessarily increased significantly. I don’t actually feel comfortable dancing with friends while a thug in a uniform with a gun, taser etc glares at us.

    1. What paranoia.
      I’m not a cop and I agree with “Partygoer”
      If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.
      Good on the police and their dogs for making me feel safe and saving lives.
      You can’t rant all you like about a “police state” but the NSW coalition was re-elected in a landslide last year. Sound to me like you are a member of the Communist party?

  6. This matches my experience at 11:30 PM on arrival at the party exactly. Interestingly, people who’d arrived slightly earlier reported minimal presence of the dog squad.

  7. Couldn’t agree with you more Colin. Life was a lot better when they (cops) left our community alone. The level of harassment we are forced to endure is beyond ridiculous and its definitely not fun dancing under the arms crossed, weapon carrying police supervison. I’m pretty sure that at one time police actually worked to protect citizens rather than control us. There is no way you could possibly justify that kind of presence at Mardi Gras. On its worst day it couldn’t have needed that many cops.

    Shame we can’t turn up to such events with a couple of hundred punters covered in something that would set off the dogs and waste their time. Never know, could get a pat down from one of the more attractive ones.

    1. My ex partner was pulled over 3 times at train stations in Sydney. And each time they was going nuts over her apron! She’s a chef and carrying it to work on all occasions. Searched and had to lay all contents of her bag out for ingrained food smells on the apron!

      Poor dogs were probably hungry. And another interesting fact. 95% of sniffer dogs develop cancer. Poor buggers.

  8. The health research is showing sniffer dogs and drug prohibition laws do more harm than good. Clearly we need to open up the debate about the moral stance on drugs. The war on drugs on my opinion is a war on the people.

    Firstly alcohol & nicotine cause more health issues including higher mortality rates than any other drug… yet they’re legal. This is such an inconsistency to the notion of caring about people. If we can consider making alcohol & nicotine public health issues and not criminal ones, why can’t we do the same for other drugs that are actually less harmful? And many of the existing harms can be significantly reduced by decriminalising drugs. Different to legalising – let there be no confusion. Portugal has demonstrated this since they decriminalised drugs 15 odd years ago.

    Prohibition is not working and criminalising people for drug use is only pushing many into falling out of society than being given the opportunity to contribute. Can’t do much with a criminal record. Substance use has been demonised unnecessarily. And it is a legacy from the opium wars and the Nixon era where it was a convenient means to subjugate the Chinese and the African population in the USA. So effectively prohibition has its roots in racist ideals.

    Globally many of the efforts to decriminalise drugs are being forged by ex police chiefs and prosecutors as they see that the system is failing. They believe pouring more money into the health system would be a much more effective way to tackle the issues than the criminal justice system that cannot even bear the numbers piling into prison system. And for what? People wanting to have a good time.

    Problematic substance use is different to recreational drug use. And should be treated as a public health issue.

    Drug dogs are only a means of intimidation and a reminder that the state intends to control people’s activities on many fronts. They are ineffective and unnecessary. Another waste of my tax payers money. They cause people to swallow drugs in haste which is dangerous.

    We are smarter than this in this day and age and should no longer accept such outdated moralistic notions on the issue that are constantly compounded by the media and the legal system.

    Let’s ask more questions!!

    Great article Fiona.

    1. Drug dogs discourage illegal activity and put a dent in vile dealer’s profits.
      It’s a win win situation.

      1. Not sure where you’re getting your information from Suzy. But it’s simply not true that they discourage drug use at all. It might discourage attendance at public dance parties and venues. But drug use is alive and well after decades of prohibition.

        Decriminalising drugs will put a bigger dent in the illegal drug market if regulated legal markets are in their place.

      2. Are you trolling us Suzy, or is it that you are young?
        You are certainly forgetting this event (MG) was born of protest. Against unreasonable laws. Caring Citizen gently points to the discrepancies inherent in the current establishments response to the drug ‘epidemic’ (good job Caring Citizen).
        Great article Fiona, also a sage warning to old timer out-o-towners who may consider revisiting the past just one last year..

        1. Unbelievable.
          I’m accused of being a troll because I have a different opinion.
          Maybe if I was a member of the Communist party I would be hailed by the hateful people writing the comments.

      3. Suzy, to what extent do the dogs discourage ‘illegal activity’? How much of a dent, exactly, are the dogs putting in the ‘vile’ dealer’s pockets? Do you know any of these ‘vile’ dealers, and what it is they are actually dealing? What harm is this type of ‘illegal activity’ doing to our society? What would be a better approach (e.g. decriminalising drugs) to avoid the need for these expensive processes in the first place? What measures could be put in place to protect people (e.g. pill testing… regulation…) rather than punish them? What positive effect might education and regulation have on the drug-taking community? How much do you actually know about MDMA, for example, and its therapeutic effects in controlled doses? Your oversimplification ignores many of the facts from studies not only alluded to in this thread, but widely available elsewhere. Yes, drug dogs do discourage illegal activity, like the prohibition discouraged alcohol consumption. Please, be more fearful, and ignore more of the evidence. Australia is ridiculously conservative and naive. It’s 2016 and we’re beyond opinions when we have so many decades of lived experiences and accumulated scientific knowledge. We are pouring resources down the drain to placate conservative and ill-informed people like yourself. Please get educated and join the progressive movement which priorities people’s actual wellbeing rather than your own misguided projection of disdain onto others.

      4. Suzy the dogs have never led to the arrest of a single major dealer, not one. Or did you not read the article?

        There’s also evidence that the dogs encourage people to take all the drugs on their person at once to avoid detection, a serious health risk.

        It’s an expensive lose-lose situation.

      5. No they don’t! Dogs do not discourage drug use at al. And if anything that bolster profits as dealers increase prices due to perceived risks. And punters take what they have on them to avoid detection whilst risking overdose. A Lose-lose situation really…

      6. @Suzy Lubaman: Have you researched the success of Portugal’s decriminalisation of all drugs policy, or are you blinded by your own ideology of trying to stop other people from enjoying themselves?
        Drug dogs make no difference to the dealer, as the drugs have already been sold. It’s good that most comments seem to disagree with you.

  9. No I’m not a cop.
    Just someone who has been going to the party for over 16 years now and I find it no different in 2016 as I did in 1999.
    I was at Electric Gardens Festival in January and the presence was equal. More so in the party itself where police were cutting off access to bars in the last set.

    Yes there is a argument for decriminalisation, and I’ll be the first one to vote for it. but I don’t believe that’s what this article was about. This just seemed another case of Mardi Gras bashing and victim culture with no real substance.

    1. it’s great that you don’t think drug use should be a crime. It’s the only sensible positive. But there isn’t just magically going to be some vote about it at some time in the future.
      How are you not disturbed seeing police enforcing laws that you think are wrong? Injustice that you’re prepared to walk past is injustice that you help perpetuate.

  10. Drug dogs don’t discourage drug use, they just stigmatise it.
    Punters find ways to still carry and use drugs. Often in more harmful ways. Police presence here was OTT and completely unnecessary. No violence, no issues. Just creates the effect of criminalising a whole group of (queer) people unnecessarily. And further damaging perceptions of police.

  11. Thanks for the great article. I have avoided this event for years. Basically since the police increased their presence. It disgusts me that our community is targeted with such institutionalised methods. This is certainly a rights-based issue. I volunteered at the Mardi Gras party for over 12 years. I have observed a huge changed to this once fantastic gathering of queers.

  12. Thank you, Fiona, this is an excellent article. As a 78er, I went to every mardi gras party from 1979 to 1999/2000. Obviously, there were police at some or most or all of these parties. I can’t remember the degrees of police presence at them. 2008 was the next time I went to this party. It was just awful, awful, awful. Too big, too many people. And the police and security presence was intimidating and homophobic. They were not friendly. Yes, some individuals may not have had this experience at the party. Well and good. To ‘Partygoer’ and ‘Suzy L’, such sentiments belie the overwhelming negative evidence that the war on drugs and the presence of sniffer dogs have. I will never go to the party again. I’ve been ‘spoilt’ by my hometown (Lismore) and Tropical Fruits’ parties. Thousands of people come to these. There is minimal police presence as there is never any trouble, even with degrees of party helpers. Indeed, if alcohol was the predominant recreational substance, then there would be trouble.

  13. Unbelievable.
    I’m accused of being a troll because I have a different opinion.
    Maybe if I was a member of the Communist party I would be hailed by the hateful people writing the comments.

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