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CBD Oil Rubs the Coast Guard the Wrong Way

Mariners — just like everyone else with sore muscles and joints — are using CBD oil or ointment to manage their aches and pains.   The problem is CBD oil can contain, even in small amounts, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana.  And when a mariner takes a random or post-accident drug test, typically via urinalysis, this can lead to a positive drug test for marijuana metabolites.  As most mariners know, a positive drug test can lead to termination of employment, mandatory reporting of the positive test result to the U.S. Coast Guard, and initiation of license suspension and revocation (“S&R”) proceedings by the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard considers marijuana a “dangerous drug.”  In a 2018 decision, a Coast Guard administrative law judge, or “ALJ,” denied the appeal of a ship pilot who was the subject of a license suspension and revocation proceeding following his failure of a random urinalysis drug test which was positive for marijuana / THC metabolites.  The mariner’s defense was he was a highly-experienced and well-regarded pilot with an “unblemished safety record” who had never before failed a drug test and had only used CBD ointment topically — he had not ingested it — to treat chronic knee pain.  The CBD ointment did not require a doctor’s prescription.  The salesperson at the legal marijuana store in Colorado told the mariner his use of CBD ointment would not have any psychotropic effects nor cause a failed drug test.  The CBD ointment tube, however, included warnings stating the product is “infused with marijuana” and had “intoxicating effects.”  There were also warnings not to “drive a motor vehicle or operate heavy machinery.”  The mariner also testified he admitted he knew the THC ointment was a marijuana-based product that contained THC.

Testing of the CBD oil in question revealed it did contain THC, in an undetermined concentration.  The ALJ found “the positive drug test was a result of the mariner using the CBD ointment.”  The ALJ also found that the mariner’s seemingly innocent use of the CBD oil was not excusable under applicable law and regulation:

“Just because Respondent did not smoke or ingest marijuana recreationally or intend to gain an intoxicating affect when taking the CBD ointment, does not mean he did not run afoul of DOT drug testing regulations. Respondent argues the CBD ointment is not a dangerous drug. I disagree; the CBD ointment is clearly a dangerous drug prohibited by DOT regulations.”

Accordingly, the ALJ, deeming himself bound by applicable law and regulation, found the mariner a “user of dangerous drugs” and ordered his merchant mariner credential be revoked and surrendered to the Coast Guard.  The ALJ also stayed the revocation process, though, finding the mariner was actively engaged in the Coast Guard’s “cure” process, including meeting with a Substance Abuse Professional, taking substance abuse classes, and submitting himself to 12 random, unannounced follow-up drug tests over the course of a year.  The ALJ was to reconvene the proceedings to see if the mariner had fully complied with the “cure” process and thus if he was then entitled to get his license back.


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NTSB Posts “Illustrated Digest” on Why the EL FARO Sank, Killing 33 Souls

The National Transportation Safety Board recently published online a concise and easy-to-understand 16-page pdf document entitled “Sinking of the US Cargo Vessel El Faro.”  The ship sank on October 1, 2015, 36 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas, and close to the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, which packed average wind speeds of 117 knots (134 miles per hour).

The document, an illustrated brochure, includes the timeline and track of the ship’s final voyage, highlights of key decisions made by the ship’s captain, examples of the disregarding by the captain of timely weather data, the lack of shoreside oversight by the ship’s owner, an explanation of how seawater got inside the ship, and several of the NTSB’s safety recommendations made to try to prevent a re-occurrence.



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U.S. Coast Guard Ups Dollar Thresholds for Property Damage Marine Casualty Reporting


On March 19, 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard published a formal notice in the Federal Register, amending its regulations to increase the estimated dollar value of property damage required for vessel operators to immediately report the incident to this federal agency.  A reportable property damage “marine casualty” increases to $100,000, from $25,000, and a “serious marine incident” in the property damage realm increases from $100,000 to $200,000.

The Coast Guard’s notice explains the increases are intended to catch-up with inflation and maintain the agency’s intent that “relatively minor” or “insignificant” property damage need not be reported.

The notice explains that while these increased thresholds may result in less frequent post-casualty drug testing in property damage incidents, mandatory drug testing following and reporting of other “reportable” incidents remains in place:

“We feel that the various types of reportable casualties detailed in 46 CFR 4.05-1 ensure we are made aware of those incidents that could indicate more serious problems and that may be averted in the future with timely intervention. These include groundings, bridge allisions, loss of propulsion or steering, certain equipment failures, incidents resulting in significant harm to the environment, fire or flooding that adversely affects the vessel’s seaworthiness or fitness for service, injuries beyond first aid, and loss of life—regardless of property damage cost.”



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U.S. Coast Guard Releases Marine Board of Investigation Report on EL FARO Tragedy

All thirty-three crew members of the container and roll-on/roll-off cargo ship, the EL FARO, perished on October 1, 2015, when the vessel sank near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Coast Guard in its report faults, among others, the ship’s master and operating companies.  You can read the enthralling 199-page report here:



Some excerpts from the report’s conclusions:

  • “The loss of the U.S. flagged cargo vessel EL FARO, along with its 33 member crew, ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history, and resulted in the highest death toll from a U.S. commercial vessel sinking in almost 40 years.”
  • “TOTE [the EL FARO’s operator] did not ensure the safety of marine operations and failed to provide shore side nautical operations supports to its vessels.”
  • “TOTE and the Master and ship’s officers were not aware of vessel vulnerabilities and
    operating limitations in heavy weather conditions.”
  • “The Master did not effectively integrate the use of Bridge Resource Management
    techniques during the accident voyage. Furthermore, the Master of EL FARO did not order a
    reduction in the speed or consider the limitations of the engineering plant as EL FARO
    converged on a rapidly intensifying hurricane. This resulted in loss of propulsion, cargo shifting and flooding.”
  • “The crew’s complacency, lack of training and procedures, and EL FARO’s design
    contributed to the crew’s failure to assess whether the vessel’s watertight integrity was
  • “TOTE’s lack of procedures for storm avoidance and vessel specific heavy weather
    plans containing engineering operating procedures for heavy weather contributed to the loss of propulsion.”
  • “The loss of propulsion resulted in the vessel drifting and aligning with the trough of
    the sea, exposing the beam of the vessel to the full force of the sea and wind.”
  • “A lack of effective training and drills by crew members, and inadequate oversight by
    TOTE, Coast Guard and ABS, resulted in the crew and riding crew members being unprepared to undertake the proper actions required for surviving in an abandon ship scenario.”
  • “After 5:43 AM on October 1, the Master failed to recognize the magnitude of the
    threat presented by the flooding into the hold combined with the heavy weather conditions. The Master did not take appropriate action commensurate with the emergent nature of the situation onboard EL FARO, including alerting the crew and making preparations for abandoning ship.”


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National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Releases 2016 Digest of Lessons Learned from 27 Major Maritime Casualties

According to the NTSB press release (https://www.ntsb.gov/news/press-releases/Pages/PR20170727.aspx), “The lessons learned from the investigation of 27 major, maritime accidents involving loss of life, injuries and property damage are detailed in the National Transportation Safety Board’s Safer Seas Digest 2016, released online Thursday [7/27/17].

The publication is a compendium of the marine accident reports that the agency adopted or issued during calendar year 2016. The 68-page Safer Seas Digest 2016 contains information that can help mariners at the deckplate level prevent future accidents, and, can help maritime industry C-suites build and sustain a culture of safety at sea.

The lessons learned in the Safer Seas Digest 2016 are highlighted in 10 categories including Standard Maintenance and Repair Procedures, Operational Testing Procedures, Operating in Strong Currents, Familiarization with Local Recommendations, Bridge Resource Management, Safety Equipment and Access to High-Risk Spaces. The remaining three categories, Distraction, Fatigue, and Use of Medication While Operating Vessels, relate to issues on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, highlighting the multi-modal nature of these threats to transportation safety.”

The digest includes lessons learned from four towing vessel collisions and one towing vessel fire.  It also discusses the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NTSB and the U.S. Coast Guard as to which agency leads the investigation of any particular major marine casualty.

You can download the pdf file containing the digest, which includes photographs of the involved vessels and which is attractive and professionally-produced, here:



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