Is Random Drug Testing in Our Future?

1 May 2009 By Kate Hubert

In addition to potentially costing the captain his career and the owner his boat (see “Drugs on Board: What Are the Consequences?”), even when undetected by the authorities, drug abuse can interfere with a crew member’s ability to do his or her job. The MCA’s Doctors’ Manual is pretty unequivocal: “Drug abuse by seafarers is extremely dangerous. An individual seafarer who abuses drugs is likely to be an ineffective worker and poses serious hazards not only to him or herself, but also to the safety of ship, fellow seafarers, other persons on board such as passengers and the marine environment.”

This may sound like common sense, but many crew seem to think it doesn’t apply to them – they’ll say that the odd joint or line “is not abuse surely?” But even if we make the big assumption that crew who do use drugs only do so off-watch, on shore, and are fully recovered by the time they’re back on duty...if this is true, what about the fact that the crew members need to buy their drugs somewhere – which means some marinas attract dealers, together with concomitant violence and crime?

As Louisa Cowan wrote in her April 16 Hot Topic about improved security in Antigua following the tragic death of Capt. Drew Gollan, captains berthed on the island have been urged to adopt a zero-tolerance stance toward their crew and drugs. It’s been noted that as the demand is drying up, the dealers are moving out and crew are beginning to feel safer there.

In an industry that is becoming increasingly professional, the drug abuse issue may be a hangover from the hazy past when yachts cruised the Caribbean carrying bales of pure Colombian and no one thought it was a big deal. This attitude now is seen as anachronistic.

Today, most crew contracts address the issue of drug use on board, and the MCA is one of several maritime authorities that mandate ships have an active anti-drugs policy in place. In most instances, posting a sign that reads “We have zero-tolerance to drugs” is no longer considered enough. So how do you enforce these policies? Is random drug testing the way to go – something that a few within the industry, including forum participants, have raised as a possibility?

Many crew balk at the idea of compulsory testing. Even the IMO takes into account the civil liberties of crew in its Drugs Guidelines in STCW (part B, part 5): “The Administration should ensure that adequate measures are taken to prevent alcohol and drugs from impairing the ability of watchkeeping personnel, and should establish screening programmes as necessary which:
1. Identify drug and alcohol abuse
2. Respect the dignity, privacy, confidentiality and fundamental legal rights of the individuals concerned
3. Take into account relevant international guidelines.”

Wouldn't it be better for the yachting industry to get its own house in order rather than have external parties enforce testing or other regulations? Captains can lead the way by setting the rules – and the tone – for crew.

Do you think that drug abuse is “endemic” to the yachting industry? Should we start doing random drug tests on crew?