The latest incarnation of my merchant mariner credential arrived 11 days into the new year, reaffirming the wisdom of starting the renewal process at least three months prior to credential expiration. This particular paper chase commenced on Nov. 4, a quinquennial process dating back to the last century. Government — especially military bureaucracy — is renowned for proceeding at a glacial pace, a situation often perpetuated by a disgruntled link in the chain of command.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s well-intentioned but draconian “war on rope” was the cause of the delay in this renewal cycle — ironic that a vital component dating back to a time prior to the tall ships would create such a kerfuffle as we steam merrily through the nuclear age.
Legislation enacted in the early 20th century clearly differentiated between the hemp component of the cannabis plant and those leaves and buds that contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive component. Some folks say the film Reefer Madness back in the 1930s pushed the Coast Guard into blurring the definitions of cannabis, but etiology on its prevailing status in the service’s purview is moot. Use of any type of cannabis product disqualifies a mariner from credential renewal.
This point was driven home in a letter demanding “amplified information” after personnel at the National Maritime Center pored over my renewal packet. The “red flag” was admission on the medical form of taking CBD (cannabidiol) oil, listed directly beneath other over-the-counter meds like aspirin and a multivitamin.
About 10 days prior to submitting the packet, I woke up, gulped my OTC meds and a blood pressure pill, and drove to town for the DOT Panel 5 drug test required for the renewal. My daily regimen included 15 drops of CBD oil to treat chronic pain of osteoarthritis in both shoulders caused by 8,500 hard days on the water over the past five decades.
Use of this THC-free hemp product wasn’t an issue with previous credential renewals, but this time the “amplified information” hoop popped up because I had foolishly told the truth on the medical form. Passing a drug test that showed my body was THC-free didn’t matter.
Looking for input on this bull-fodder hoop, I interviewed 19 mariners, including active-duty and retired Coast Guard personnel. Seventeen of the 19 told me they had either omitted or lied about information on an official Coast Guard form.
This didn’t resonate with a retired professional firefighter who holds archaic traits like integrity and honesty in high regard. So, I reached out to my senator, Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa, wondering why a THC-free analgesic — totally legal, with no deleterious side effects found in other OTC meds, corticosteroid injections and prescription drugs — was an unequivocal disqualifier for credential renewal.
Ernst responded with a letter acknowledging the potential of CBD products as pain relievers for many medical conditions, noting she was an original cosigner of S. 1276 — the Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, which was introduced on May 25, 2017, by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. If enacted, the bill would support research initiatives on the potential benefits of substances that are derived from marijuana, such as CBD.
In her letter, Ernst noted that the bill had been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. A Google search for S. 1276 revealed it is still languishing in the Judiciary Committee, with a four-year “sunset” clause. The cannibidiol bill will expire May 25, 2021, if it is not acted upon in the meantime — not unlike the sunset behind an Alaskan glacier this time of year.
Although Congress plays a role in Coast Guard marching orders, service spokeswoman Lt. Amy Midgett said official policy has many sources of input when it comes to medical matters. Midgett said the Coast Guard’s Merchant Mariner Medical Manual was developed “in close harmony with experienced maritime medical practitioners and industry stakeholders” serving on the Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee (MEDMAC) and the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee (MERPAC).
“The manual is essentially a synthesis of information from these two groups and medical requirements of Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 10, Subpart C,” she said. “One option to change policy is for merchant mariners to attend and offer input at public meetings of MEDMAC, which are announced in the Federal Register.”
Going forward, there is a good chance the Coast Guard’s stance on CBD oil will remain unchanged when my next quinquennial quest for credential renewal rolls around. Meanwhile, the political landscape regarding cannabis continues to evolve. With the recreational use of marijuana now legal in 11 states and medical marijuana use legal in 30, anything is possible.
Coast Guard policy remains steadfast, with the service literally doubling down by continuing a 50 percent annual drug test rate for covered crewmembers. That’s up from 25 percent in 2018, when statistics revealed that more than 1 percent of mariners failed the DOT Panel 5 test covering marijuana (THC), cocaine, amphetamines, opioids and phencyclidine (PCP).
It’s sad that our industry professionals feel compelled to chart a course based on omission or prevarication in pursuit of smooth sailing through the credential renewal process. Those who choose to use CBD can roll the dice, adopting a “don’t tell when they ask” stance on the medical form. Or they can seek relief from chronic pain by using approved medications and treatment modalities that are invariably more deleterious to our health.
It looks like we’re caught somewhere between pan-pan and mayday, with no safe harbor in sight.
Capt. Ted Peck has been working as a fishing guide on the Upper Mississippi River for more than 20 years. He is a 2020 inductee into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.