As the election results were tallied across America in November and everyone became hyper-focused on two words—President Trump—Capt. Roy Hodges aboard 161-foot (49-meter) Christensen Match Point listened for the results of ballot initiatives in a handful of states.
Massachusetts, in the New England cruising grounds where Match Point charters during summers, became the first Northeast state to legalize recreational marijuana. Maine voters also gave recreational weed the thumbs up, foreshadowing bong shops everywhere from Bar Harbor to Portland. And in the Southern cruising grounds where Match Point bases each winter, Floridians voted to legalize medical use.
By the end of 2016, more than half of U.S. states—28 of them plus Washington, D.C.—had legalized medical marijuana, with recreational use becoming legal in eight states plus the District of Columbia. USA Today reported legal retail sales of cannabis spiking by 21 percent just before Christmas, with edibles such as brownies and candy as the top sellers. A Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans wanted to see weed legalized nationwide, up from just 25 percent in 1996. Market analysts started mentioning companies such as Philip Morris and Coca-Cola in the same sentences as the word cannabis, with all kinds of infused goodies apparently on the drawing boards.
Hodges saw a specific problem within the national trend. He worried that the pot situation aboard charter yachts was going to get even worse before it might possibly get better.
“I had both on the same charter,” Hodges says of medical and recreational users. “One guy brought on a joint, and then another one brought on a recommendation from a doctor with a bunch of pot. It wound up not ending well.”
The problem that Hodges and other charter-yacht captains are encountering is that no matter what any state’s voters or lawmakers do, marijuana possession remains a federal crime. The U.S. Coast Guard can board any vessel on any navigable waters, even if the vessel is tied to a dock whose piling is firmly implanted in state land, Hodges says. Captains caught with drugs on board can lose their licenses or have the yachts seized, and, as Hodges puts it, “if we cross a state line with any drugs on board, we’re trafficking. If you go from here to the Bahamas, country to country, that gets very messy.”
Some charterers already step aboard with weed, thinking it’s okay because they’re from a state where it’s legal or they have a doctor’s note. Now that pot is being legalized along popular cruising coastlines, guests will be able to head ashore and grab edibles or joints, much as they might grab a bottle of booze today and bring it back to the boat. And when that boat is one they just paid, in the case of Match Point, a base rate of $195,000 to charter, the clients can feel they are entitled to do as they please.
Hodges experienced that attitude during the charter where clients brought marijuana aboard, even though the contract—as with virtually all charter contracts—clearly stated no drugs allowed.
“We had a very uncomfortable experience with the client, the closest I’ve come to hitting somebody in a long time,” Hodges says. “It was bad for everybody involved. I had three crewmembers run up because they thought he was going to hit me. I’m a pretty calm guy. That says a lot.”
And he’s not alone. Kathleen Mullen of Regency Yacht Charters, the vice president of the American Yacht Charter Association, says clients find the current situation confusing. “There was someone who came to the BVI recently who assumed his prescription for it would make it legal there,” she says. “Not according to BVI law!”
Beverly Parsons of Interpac Yachts, the president of AYCA, says she has encountered the problem, too. “I have had the issue in California on a local charter where the client had a legal prescription for marijuana,” she says. “The captain had to ask him to leave it at home on his repeat trip.”
Hodges says that at a recent seminar in Fort Lauderdale, his yacht’s charter manager, with IYC, brought up his incident “and a lot of people had input. It had happened to at least three or four other guys out of maybe 20 captains in the room.”
Federal lawmakers appear poised to begin wrestling with the issue, though with unclear goals. In mid-February, a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives from states where recreational use is legal formed the first-ever Congressional Cannabis Caucus, saying federal law needed to be squared with conflicting state laws. But they may face a tough-on-drugs Trump Administration in the White House. While the president lacks a clear position on pot as of this writing, attorney general Jeff Sessions said in April 2016 that “we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” adding separately that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Hodges fears what could happen if Sessions’ viewpoint wins out, leading the U.S. Coast Guard to increase the number of yacht inspections. Imagine the possible windfall, he says, for the government’s financial coffers, even when captains are trying to do the right thing.
“If they seize the boat, hopefully you can get it back, but in the ’80s and early ’90s, there was zero tolerance,” Hodges says. “They were auctioning boats off left and right back then—and that’s still the law. It could happen again.”