Cannabis And Boating
Impairment is impairment no matter the substance. But with marijuana, there is even more at stake — regardless of legality in your state.
Photo: Getty Images/Jirkaejc
For many years, BoatUS has warned against the dangers of boating while under the influence of alcohol, which, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics Report, continues to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Now that the recreational use of marijuana is legal in nine states (including all of the West Coast of the U.S.), it’s time to take a look at how cannabis can affect boaters — and their wallets.
As of June 30, 2021, 18 states plus Washington, D.C., have fully legalized recreational marijuana use, and 19 additional states permit the medical use of cannabis. Other states and localities have decriminalized cannabis possession (people who possess small amounts of the drug don’t face criminal prosecution, but only civil penalties similar to a traffic fine). These laws are changing quickly, so check with your state to make sure you know the legal status of cannabis possession and use. The fact is that, in some places, cannabis is becoming as mainstream as say, wine. But there are important distinctions.
Water, Water Everywhere
Even if cannabis is legal in your state, the federal government still considers it a Schedule I drug, which the feds say has the potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use. This is very important, because on any water (or land) under federal jurisdiction, it’s illegal to possess cannabis even though a state may have legalized it.
And waters under federal jurisdiction are enormous. Consider that the entire coastline of the U.S. is under federal jurisdiction. That means that on coastal waters of California, Oregon, and Washington — states that have legalized cannabis — it is a federal crime to possess it. The U.S. Coast Guard says that “all waters including, but not limited to, the navigable waters of the United States” are under their authority. It’s the “but not limited to” part that could be trouble for some boaters because, while it includes some bodies of water that seem obvious, such as the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, and Chesapeake Bay, it’s also pretty much any waters that the federal government deems navigable, such as freshwater lakes, including Lake Tahoe, Salt Lake, Lake Champlain, and Lake of the Ozarks.
If you’re subject to federal boating laws that require such things as life jackets, navigation lights, and sound signals, it’s a good bet you’re in federal jurisdiction waters. This jurisdiction issue also sets up some potentially uncomfortable situations. If you sailed your boat from say, Portland, Maine, to the nearby islands in Maine, or from Seattle to a Washington state island in Puget Sound, you’d be breaking federal law if you were in possession of cannabis. If you’re not sure if the waters you boat in are under federal jurisdiction, contact the nearest Coast Guard office and ask.
Keep in mind that the Coast Guard doesn’t need to have a warrant or even reasonable suspicion to board your boat. If they do, and you’re in possession of marijuana (or any other illegal drug) or are under the influence of cannabis (or alcohol or any other intoxicant), you may be arrested. If you happen to have a U.S. Coast Guard license, it will likely be suspended for at least a year.
Price To Pay
Now that you know about the issues of possessing cannabis, how about its effects while you’re under way? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical compound in cannabis responsible for the “high”) concentration and impaired driving ability.
In all states, boating under the influence (BUI) laws are the same whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, or any other intoxicant. Just as with a BUI conviction for alcohol, you will likely face heavy fines, possible jail time, and you could lose your driver’s license. Many states now consider BUI convictions the same as driving under the influence (DUI), which means if you have one DUI and are arrested for a BUI, it’s a second offense and the consequences can be much worse. If you happen to be on waters with federal jurisdiction and are arrested for cannabis possession, you could be sentenced to up to a year in jail for any amount. Second offenses have mandatory jail time.
Our advice for cannabis users is the same for those who imbibe in alcohol: Wait until you’re back before you celebrate the day. And if there’s any chance you’ll be in federal jurisdiction waters, make sure you and your guests have a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis onboard.
How Legalized Marijuana Applies to Boaters
Just because you’re boating in a state with legalized marijuana doesn’t mean you can bring it on board.
- By Capt. Vincent Daniello
In states where pot is legal, your guests may think nothing of bringing state-legal recreational amounts of the drug aboard. Capt. Vincent Daniello
With possession of small amounts of marijuana now legal in eight states, boaters are asking whether the U.S. Coast Guard, a federal agency, will abide by those state laws.
The answer is a resounding no. In six coastal states where marijuana possession is legal, “It remains a violation of federal law. If we encounter it in the course of our operations, we will enforce those laws,” says Lt. Cmdr. Devon Brennan, who oversees the U.S. Coast Guard’s counter-narcotics enforcement programs and policies. Understanding that position is critical for boaters concerned about guests bringing it aboard, thinking it is OK.
When I began charter fishing in Florida during the 1980s, marijuana smuggling was so rampant that every school kid understood that square grouper was the nickname for a floating bale of weed. The official policy back then was zero tolerance: A single marijuana seed, even in a public space aboard a charter vessel, would mandate vessel seizure, resulting in 113 boats confiscated under the policy just in 1988. Federal authorities attenuated that policy for discovery of small quantities in 1989.
In most states today, possession of less than an ounce of cannabis garners a citation and a few-hundred-dollar fine, and recreational use is now legal in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts. It’s ironic then that significant problems from cannabis aboard boats occur in seven of those eight states where it is legal. (Because it enables commerce between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe falls under Coast Guard authority. Only Colorado is devoid of Coast Guard presence.)
Brennan points out that the Coast Guard is not unique. Any federal law-enforcement agency follows federal law. The difference is that on land, federal officers aren’t out writing tickets for faulty taillights, but the Coast Guard routinely boards boats, even within state waters, to enforce federal boating-safety laws. While they’re inspecting flares or looking in the PFD locker, if they find a baggie with a little weed, it becomes a big problem. In states where laws prohibit marijuana possession, the Coast Guard routinely passes cases to state authorities. But boaters busted within, say, Massachusetts waters, will face federal prosecution.
Operation Dry Water
Operating under the influence of any intoxicant, including marijuana, can bring serious consequences. Coast Guard personnel administer a Standardized Field Sobriety Test to determine legal impairment. USCG/PO3 Mark Jones
Federal law covering small quantities of any Schedule I substance, including marijuana, allows fines as high as $5,000. “We don’t specify an amount [of marijuana],” Brennan says. Instead, circumstances are weighed to determine possession versus “intent to distribute.” First-time offenders can expect marijuana-possession fines similar to state levels, as determined by a Coast Guard civil penalty hearing officer. “Fifty pounds [of marijuana] is where we get into trafficking level,” Brennan adds.
That record of a federal narcotics violation carries other consequences too. Anyone holding a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, for example, even if they were out boating for fun on the day of the marijuana citation, will have to wait at least a year after conviction to renew that license and also complete a drug rehabilitation program, among other requirements. (The same holds true for state drug-possession violations.)
State boundaries on the water aren’t defined by welcome signs either. Consider New Hampshire’s 13-mile coastline sandwiched between pot-legal Maine and Massachusetts. As of this article’s writing, simple marijuana possession still carries up to a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. New Hampshire’s decriminalization effort seems as though it will eventually settle at a $500 fine for possession of less than one-quarter ounce, even though Massachusetts’s recreational-use cutoff is 1 ounce and Maine’s is 2.5 ounces.
Operating under the influence of a controlled substance is the paramount concern of all law-enforcement personnel who I interviewed. “Legalization [of marijuana] has driven us to take a hard look at our OUI program,” Brennan says, which now includes oral fluid collection. “A Standardized Field Sobriety Test determines impairment. The oral fluids tell us what that impairment is caused by.”
OUI might cost more than fines and legal fees too. Insurance policies may not be renewed, or possibly even cancelled, after an OUI conviction. “Review the policy and make sure you fully understand its coverages. Contact your agent or insurer and ask questions,” says Scott Croft, vice president of public affairs for BoatU.S.
“Unlike home or auto policies, boat-insurance coverage can vary significantly.”
While laws vary, it’s clear that marijuana aboard can cause trouble for boaters cruising waters patrolled by federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Dangers of Boating Under the Influence
Your Brain on Drugs
Dr. Marilyn Huestis, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland medical school, is a leading researcher on cannabis impairment, including studies employing University of Iowa’s advanced driving simulator. Simple tasks, she says, are often completed just as well while impaired, but performance drops rapidly when complexity increases. Divided attention — juggling multiple tasks at once — is particularly hampered by marijuana use. “You tend to see [or notice] things later, react slower and have trouble reacting in difficult situations,” she adds — all are impedances to safely operating a boat.
Huestis says research indicates as much as a 2.6-fold increase in the odds of being in a serious or fatal automobile accident with any measurable THC in blood, and studies have shown as high as 6.6 times the serious accident rate at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, which is Washington State’s legal limit. Huestis says being legally drunk is as bad or worse for driving than being high, but she asks, “Why would you want to more than double your risk of a major accident or fatality?”
Motor control is also diminished. “Your brain sees an apple, tells your hand to reach out, wrap your fingers around it, and bring it to your mouth. That [process] is tremendously affected by cannabis,” she says. As a boater herself, Huestis sees significant implications while docking, for example. Besides physiological effects while high, marijuana withdrawal also leads to acute tiredness, compounding the effects of fatigue common after a day on the water.
One way marijuana use differs significantly from drinking alcohol is that THC concentrations measured in blood decreases by 90 percent after less than 90 minutes, largely because the brain and major organs absorb it, Huestis says. The feeling of being high returns to baseline in three to six hours, but the effects on driving may continue past eight hours for occasional users — those who use marijuana less than daily.
For those who light up at least once per day, termed “chronic frequent users,” Huestis could measure THC in their blood, and even their sweat, 30 days after last use, and her studies still showed significant psycho-motor impairment after three weeks of pot abstinence.
Another troubling issue, she says, is studies showing marijuana users’ willingness to drive. “People don’t think cannabis is impairing them, even when it is still at least twice as likely to result in an accident,” she says.