Mariners and marijuana: A moral perspective

The federal government is going to have to do something about marijuana’s legal status.

The same situation, involving alcohol, was resolved in the 1930s with the repeal of Prohibition (happily, marijuana prohibitionists never managed to pass a constitutional amendment). But while the Justice Department dithers and issues conflicting guidelines to federal law enforcement and prosecutors, mariners continue to suffer more than the rest of the population from unfair and illogical Coast Guard policies.

The Coast Guard, swept up in the anti-drug “just say no” hysteria of the 1980s, found a neat slogan with “Zero Tolerance” and an excuse to harass recreational and other boaters with invasive and often unconstitutional searches under that rubric, although admittedly with little effect on marijuana smuggling or onboard use. As a corollary to zero tolerance, professional mariners were and are still held to a higher standard than those in similar jobs. A licensed mariner with a misdemeanor marijuana conviction is required to enroll in an expensive in-patient drug program with questionable effects, whereas the FAA wisely handles such issues with airline pilots on a case-by-case basis. In my 50 years of flying experience I’ve never heard of a pilot being ordered into “in-patient” incarceration. This Coast Guard policy is clearly punitive rather than rehabilitory, and it must be changed.

In states where marijuana is legal either medically or recreationally, the Coast Guard’s law enforcement arm is in the same boat as the rest of the nation’s law-enforcement agencies, drifting with no hand on the Justice Department tiller. Individual U.S. attorneys and federal agencies now make decisions about whom to arrest for weed without reason and in conflicting ways. 

This is not an argument for or against legalization, but simply for continuity, predictability and rationality in our laws. There may be issues, like the death penalty, best handled by each state, but enforcement of drug laws against mariners — who by profession travel from state to state, who often live in one state and work in another, and who depend on licenses issued by a single, all-powerful national military organization — should be consistent and reasonable.

That is not to say that the case for marijuana’s legalization or decriminalization doesn’t outweigh the case against it, and at the moment the arguments in favor seem to be winning. In any event, it would make sense for the law to treat marijuana like alcohol, which for the Coast Guard would mean a prohibition on use, impairment, or possession onboard but no restrictions on legal use otherwise. But official change takes time, and while the federal government struggles to catch up to the will of the people, the Coast Guard should use its plenipotentiary powers to ease the burden of these outdated and unnecessary policies on the U.S. mariner.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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