Mindful of the buzz about medical marijuana and the efforts to change its drug classification, the Coast Guard sought guidance on how to evaluate mariners who use it.
The Coast Guard asked the Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee (MEDMAC) for help on everything from a working definition of medical marijuana to safety concerns posed by merchant mariner users.
MEDMAC’s advice: No matter what anyone else does, the Coast Guard should keep in place its ban on medical use of hallucinogens. Such use, “even if legalized by a state, is not waiverable under any circumstances,” stated Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08, which lays out medical and physical evaluation guidelines.
Mariners who now test positive for marijuana are subject to a penalty and applicants who use medical marijuana will be denied credentials.
“Performing shipboard duties under the influence of marijuana, medical marijuana or medications containing marijuana poses a significant safety risk,” the committee said in documents from its recent meeting in St. Louis. “There is insufficient research on the safe use of marijuana in maritime work environments,” MEDMAC said.
Its use would also raise concerns internationally since it’s illegal in some countries.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in August denied a petition to change marijuana’s classification from Schedule I to Schedule II. Use of Schedule II drugs, which have accepted medical applications, is legal with a prescription. DEA said marijuana “has a high potential for abuse” and has no currently accepted medical use in treatment.
“The Coast Guard will give MEDMAC’s recommendations full consideration in determining how best to proceed on the issue,” Dr. Adrienne Buggs, physician advisor/medical certification, said via e-mail. The committee’s advice that the Coast Guard not pursue a rulemaking on marijuana and stick with the NVIC “is certainly a viable option at present, since marijuana is a prohibited Schedule I substance.”
Asked how prevalent marijuana use is, she said, “The Coast Guard does not track positive drug tests, specific to marijuana. However, it is important to note that individuals who test positive for illegal use of any controlled substance are handled through enforcement action, and not through the medical certification review process.”
Likewise, the Coast Guard doesn’t track the number of applicants who have applied for a merchant mariner credential with a request to use medical marijuana, Dr. Buggs said. Medical officers surveyed “have no recollection of receiving any such application requests for use of medical marijuana.”
If the classification were changed, the committee agenda noted, “Mariners with a valid prescription for medical marijuana, who are found to have marijuana in their system during drug testing, would not have their results reported to the Coast Guard as a positive drug test. Additionally, applicants for merchant mariner medical certification who use medical marijuana would be evaluated in the same manner as applicants on any other medication.”