It’s hip, it’s legal, it’s everywhere — it’s even prescribed by doctors. Beware, says one captain. Here’s what crew should know.
CBD. Everyone’s using it, so it’s OK. Right?
Not so, according to a South Florida yacht captain whose mariner’s license is in jeopardy after his positive test for cannabidiol (CBD).
This captain, who asked to remain anonymous because of his legal situation, sought treatment from doctors for arthritic pain related to old injuries after 30 years of working on yachts. Nothing worked. He spoke with another captain who had been using CBD for years, and he spoke with his orthopedic surgeon, who said CBD was a safe choice. He researched marijuana and hemp products, and checked maritime rules.
After much deliberation, he decided to try CBD oil within the legal limit of 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). In Florida, where it is illegal to sell THC products, the clerk assured him that potency would not be an issue.
“I did 50 milligrams a day under tongue, which is a low dose,” he said. “I considered it equivalent to Advil. I began to see some relief in my shoulder and back. I was pleased with the results.”
When it was time for his master's license renewal, he had the usual physical and drug test, as he had many times before. It came back positive for THC.
“I was floored, to say the least,” the captain said. "The MRO was not available to speak with so I figured it could be a mistake.”
Medical review officers are required by law to report positive results to the authorities, in accordance with the Code of Federal Regulations.
Still in disbelief, the captain had himself retested at a facility he uses for random crew screenings. “It also came back positive,” he said.
His U.S. Coast Guard license was now in jeopardy.
As explained in 49 CFR Part 40 of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s drug and alcohol regulations: “The individual must be denied employment as a crewmember or must be removed from duties which directly affect the safe operation of the vessel as soon as practicable and is subject to suspension and revocation proceedings against his or her credential under 46 CFR Part 5.”
It does not matter that it’s legal in the state of Florida to ingest CBD oil or apply it to your skin, or that a medical doctor may have prescribed it — the issue for yacht captains and crew is on the federal level. The federal regulations require laboratory testing for five classes of drugs, including marijuana. Although hemp was removed from the list in the Controlled Substances Act under the 2018 Farm Bill, some hemp products with CBD are classified as marijuana when they exceed the legal limit of 0.3% THC in test results.
“You will be treated as if you just smoked crack in the medical facility or in the parking lot,” the captain said. “There is no difference in their opinions of why the test is positive.”
He also cautions that CBD has been seen to show in hair sample testing for up to 30 days.
And it’s important to note that each user’s effects will vary according to their weight, fat, metabolism, and amount and duration of CBD use, he said. Just because your friend who uses CBP passed the drug test, it doesn’t guarantee that you will.
“Do not take what the salesperson tells you about the legal ramifications of their product,” he said. “They want to sell it to you, so I doubt they will volunteer that it could be detrimental to your livelihood.”
The captain, who is working with the U.S. Coast Guard on keeping his license, wants his experience to be a warning for upcoming and current yacht crew to get educated before using CBD.
What you should know Since 1996, laws have been relaxing on CBD and THC. As of early 2021, there are 40 U.S. states and territories that allow medical cannabis. Recreationally, 21 states and territories allow nonmedical use. However, yacht captains and others in transportation must follow drug-testing requirements set by the federal Department of Transportation. As interest in CBD grows, that department has posted a warning on its website, stating that federal regulations require testing for marijuana and not CBD. However, “the labeling of many CBD products may be misleading because the products could contain higher levels of THC than what the product label states.” The Food and Drug Administration does not currently certify the levels of THC in CBD products, so there is no federal oversight to ensure that the labels are accurate. The FDA itself cautions consumers to beware purchasing and using any [CBD] products, stating that it is currently illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food, or labeling it as a dietary supplement, and that the agency has issued several warning letters to companies because their products contained more CBD than indicated on the product label.
What happens if you fail a drug test? If you test positive for more than the legal limit of THC and cannot prove the testing was incorrectly administered, you are subject to 49 CFR Part 40, which states that anyone who fails a test “will be presumed to be a user of dangerous drugs,” and even non-credentialed individuals “shall be denied employment as a crewmember or removed from duties which directly affect the safe operation of the vessel as soon as possible.” A crew member who has failed a required chemical test for dangerous drugs may not be re-employed aboard a vessel until the following requirements have been satisfied: The MRO must determine that the individual is drug-free and the risk of subsequent use of dangerous drugs by that person is sufficiently low to justify his or her return to work. In addition, the individual must agree to be subject to increased, unannounced testing for a minimum of six tests in the first year after the individual returns to work, and then for any additional period as determined by the MRO, up to a total of 60 months.