Marijuana is illegal onboard boats. Period.
Nevermind the fact that more than 20 U.S. states have legalized marijuana in some manner, U.S. federal law deems it illegal and dangerous, and a captain can have his license revoked if it is found onboard.
Whether medicinal or recreational, natural or synthetic, cannabis, also known as pot, is not allowed under the highest law of the land.
Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, U.S. Coast Guard District 7 public affairs officer, explained several maritime ramifications of the drug for The Triton this month.
Q. If marijuana is found onboard, can a vessel be seized or a captain’s license be taken?
Somma: “Yes. Under 46 U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 5.59, revocation of a mariner’s credential or endorsement is mandatory when a charge of possession, use, sale or association with dangerous drugs is found. Revocation is also mandatory if the mariner has been a user of or is addicted to a dangerous drug, or has been convicted for a violation of dangerous drug laws, whether or not further court action is pending and a charge is proved.”
William Dolphin, a writer for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for legal access to cannabis for therapeutic uses and research, said U.S. laws are complicated with overlapping jurisdictions and policies.
But in all cases, the federal government allows no exceptions to prohibitions. That means if it is illegal with the feds, it is illegal with the USCG.
Dolphin said it is routine to confiscate cars for connections to drugs and those same laws will apply to yachts.
Q. What if the owner or a guest with marijuana has a prescription for it?
Somma: “During the course of a boarding where U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement officers encounter personal use quantities of marijuana, allegedly possessed in accordance with state laws which allow for personal possession for medical or other purposes, the Coast Guard Boarding Officer shall advise the individual that possession of marijuana, for whatever purpose, remains illegal under federal law.”
Captains should anticipate that people may try to come onboard with cannabis, Dolphin said. A patient who claims to have been given a prescription actually has what is legally called a “written recommendation,” he said.
“A doctor can’t use a prescription pad because writing prescriptions is linked to federal use,” Dolphin said. “They may feel strongly about their right to use it and say that they are legal or in need. Many people think if the state has legalized it then it is legal, but federal law hasn’t changed.”
Q. Yachts carry small amounts of controlled medications, as required by International Maritime Code, for the ship’s medicine chest. Can marijuana be considered medication?
Somma: “No. Regardless of any state medicinal marijuana laws, possession, use, sale or association with marijuana on navigable federal waters of the United States is illegal under federal law.”
Drugs are regulated through the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is in charge of enforcement. Under these laws marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug defined as having no accepted medical use and with a high potential for abuse.
The category includes heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone, morphine, codeine and peyote. The CSA does not recognize the difference between medical and recreational use of marijuana.
Q. What if the yacht owner is resident of a state where marijuana is legal and his vessel is registered in that state. Is he legal to have marijuana aboard in the waters of his state?
Somma: “No. Where a state-registered vessel is in state waters where marijuana is legal, the vessel may still be subject to federal jurisdiction. The U.S. Coast Guard routinely enforces federal law where jurisdiction is shared with respective states.”
Legislation on the legality of marijuana is pending in many states, but at press time, coastal states with some level of legalization included Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Washington, DC.
Q. If the owner’s boat is documented with a hailing port/home port within a marijuana-legal state, can he legally have marijuana aboard while cruising offshore and or within the waters of a non-permitting state? Is his vessel protected property of the owner’s state and vessel’s home port state?
Somma: “No. The Coast Guard enforces federal law, to include illegal possession or use of dangerous drugs, within all navigable waters of the U.S. The vessel registration does not create a ‘protected area’ around the vessel allowing it immunity from federal law.”
Although captains are aware of drug laws as they pertain to yachting, many crew and guests may not understand state and federal discrepancies. As state laws on the legality of marijuana continue to be tested in U.S. courts, it is expected that federal law will prevail for the current time.
Capt. Gregory Clark of M/Y D’Natalin IV summed up the situation for captains:
“It’s my belief that despite the new laws in some states that permit possession and use, it has to remain a zero-tolerance issue for any professional operation on board a yacht.”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.