Capt. John (name changed for privacy) very rarely drinks, maybe an occasional glass of wine with his wife. The yacht captain of 30 years doesn’t party with his crew and he’s never touched drugs in his life. So imagine his shock when he failed a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) drug test required to renew his USCG Merchant Mariner Credentials.
The morning of his test, he took his usual medications and supplements without thinking about it; one of these was CBD, a legal chemical which he had been taking since his recovery from cancer four years earlier and which had never caused him to fail a drug test in the past. The doctors gave him a 60 percent chance of the cancer returning so the CBDs relieved his anxiety about this and may have inhibited the growth of tumors, as studies have shown it can do.
The DOT 5-panel test doesn’t screen for CBD, but it does look for another cannabinoid, THC, as an indicator of marijuana use, and a trace amount was found in John’s system.
“The problem is labels aren’t regulated by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration),” says Jimmy Powers ... “So, while the label says zero percent THC, it could actually have more than that.”
“What a doctor told me (since) is if I hadn’t taken it that morning and I’d taken it the day before, I probably wouldn’t have had enough CBD in me to fail the drug test,” the captain says. “I had taken it right before I went to take the drug test, which was really stupid, but it was an honest mistake. I just didn’t know.”
In fact, up until the moment he failed the test, he was certain he wasn’t taking any THC. “There’s nothing on the CBD bottle or on the website that says it contains any [THC],” he says.
“The problem is labels aren’t regulated by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration),” says Jimmy Powers of Flightline Drug Testing in Fort Lauderdale, which administers tests for the Coast Guard among other U.S. agencies. “So, while the label says zero percent THC, it could actually have more than that.”
The low amount found in the captain’s system doesn’t exonerate him either. “They measure at the lab how many nanograms per milliliter are in their system. So, if it’s a really low number, it could be CBD, but it also could be someone that had smoked or done something else and it’s just on the way out. There’s no way to tell whether it was one or the other,” Powers says. Because it’s impossible to tell the difference, the USCG made a blanket policy several years ago that CBD could not be used as an excuse.
After the failed test, Capt. John had to sign over command of his 60-meter yacht and spent the rest of the season as the owner’s representative until his hearing almost five months later. He had kept his receipts for CBD and seems to have convinced the authorities that the benign substance was the cause, but that made no difference to the hearing’s outcome.
“It’s not that they don’t believe me. They do believe me. Everybody believes me. It’s just their policy. They suspend everybody. I still got the full force of the suspension,” he says.
The DOT 5-panel test doesn’t screen for CBD, but it does look for another cannabinoid, THC, as an indicator of marijuana use.
He was offered a settlement called “the cure,” which calls for a 12-month suspension of his license and mandatory drug rehabilitation, including a 12-hour marijuana course. “If you fight it, you lose your license forever — 99.99 percent of people lose their licenses. They only have three criteria they have to go by: Was it your urine? Did it fail? And did the lab do everything properly, was the chain of custody handled correctly? That’s all they have to prove,” John says.
So, he’s acquiesced to the drug education, the loss of work, and a future of bi-monthly drug testing, which, because they are DOT tests, have to be done in the U.S., inhibiting his future career prospects as a globe-trotting captain.
But that’s not all of the story. Because he used the word “anxiety” as an explanation for the CBD use, and anxiety hasn’t been listed on his credentials since his cancer diagnosis years ago, he’s under investigation for fraud. This is a felony.
“We’re still fighting that part because it wasn’t medically diagnosed anxiety. I learned you have to say ‘highly stressed,’” he says. “It would have been better had I not said they were CBDs and said, ‘Hey, I’m a pot-smoker.’ Then I would have done the rehab that I had to do anyway, and the medical would have never attacked me. But since I wanted to show that I was taking CBDs because they’re not debilitating and I’m not an idiot, I’m being attacked twice now.
“My whole point is I think people are getting the shaft with CBDs. Even if they have a trace amount (of THC) there’s nothing debilitating about taking CBD. I think that the Coast Guard’s way out of base here. It doesn’t hamper my ability to run a boat. And CBD is very prevalent. You can buy it everywhere locally. The other day I went to get a massage because I was pretty stressed out and I look on the wall and they’re using CBD-infused oil, and I said ‘you can’t use that,’ because if it seeps into my skin and I fail another drug test, I’ll lose my license forever — for getting a massage.
“I’m a professional mariner. I’ve got a family and kids. I don’t even go out with the crew. I don’t do anything. I mean, I like to build Legos in my spare time. I just don’t understand how this all could happen to me.”
This article originally ran in the April 2022 issue of Dockwalk.