Drugs on Board: What Are the Consequences?

30 April 2009 By Kate Hubert

Judging by recent chatter in forums such as the Crew Confessor: “No Coke-ing Matter,” yachties’ opinions on illegal drug use on board range widely from those who “Just Say No,” even if it means leaving their job, to those who shrug it off, saying: “Ah, come on guys, everyone does it – what’s the problem?”

The problem is that illegal drug use is just that – illegal – and it can affect not only the user, but also the captain and everyone else on the yacht, as well as the owner. Certain crewmembers may be willing to put their jobs on the line to indulge in a few lines or tokes, but are they also risking a whole lot more?

The potential consequences of being “busted” with drugs on board depend on the waters where the yacht is located at the time. In some places in Asia and the Middle East, for example, it could even result in the death penalty: In Malaysia, two British/Australian men were hanged for carrying 5ozs, 142g of heroin. And in Dubai, people have been thrown in jail even for possessing over-the-counter, codeine-based headache tablets without a specific prescription.

This is what the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has to say about crew entering United States waters carrying even small “personal use” amounts of illegal drugs:
• The importer is subject to arrest and prosecution and fines for the illegal importation of narcotics.
• Under federal law, any conveyance that facilitates the illegal importation of controlled substances may be seized and forfeited.
• Depending upon the captain’s degree of knowledge for transporting the narcotics, the captain could also be subject to arrest, prosecution and fines.
• If a non-U.S. citizen is encountered upon arrival with a controlled substance, he/she may be deemed inadmissible (and) their visa may be cancelled and the individual removed from the U.S. and barred from re-entering for a period of no less than five years.

In the UK, the new Border Agency will soon be taking over responsibility from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in dealing with the importation of illicit drugs. Here is how the law works in UK waters:
• One of the first actions usually taken by boarding officers is to take a swab test from the vessel to detect the presence of prohibited drugs. If the test proves positive, the vessel will be searched and passengers/crew questioned. The vessel may also be searched without a swab test being taken.
• An illicit drug importation offence is treated more severely than the police offence of possession.
• The importation of a class “A” drug (even a “personal use” quantity) could result in a criminal record, a fine and possibly a custodial sentence. The impact of any of these could be very damaging in terms of current and future employment.
• If there is evidence that the captain knew a member of the crew had imported drugs, he/she also could be charged for being “knowingly concerned” in the importation of a controlled drug. If there is even a suspicion that the captain was “knowingly concerned”, it’s likely he/she would have to undergo a personal search, such as a strip-search, and could be interviewed “under caution.”
• The procedure in the case cannabis is found is to offer a compound penalty (financial penalty/fine) depending on the circumstances (i.e. previous offences). The details of the settlement still might be disclosed to an employer if the nature of the offender’s employment facilitated the offence or if the nature of the employment requires a high level of unimpaired judgement or faculties.
• It’s also technically possible that the vessel could be seized under the provisions of CEMA (Customs & Excise Management Act 1979) 141(1-a). However, serious consideration would have to be given about whether this was proportionate. It would depend upon the circumstances of the individual case.

Lisa Billard of HMRC said, “HMRC criminal investigators are always asked to assist if our maritime crews on cutters or RHIBs detect cocaine or heroin on vessels, passengers or crewmembers. We make no exception for the type of vessel involved or the nationality of its crew.”

Similar laws are found around the globe. Since travelling on a marine vessel opens you up to accusations of smuggling, even small amounts of drugs that might get a crewmember no more than a caution on shore at home can lead to serious consequences at sea.