Are Drugs on Cruise Ships on the Rise?
A cruise passenger was arrested in St. Thomas last week after federal agents found a load of party drugs he was allegedly dealing from his cabin on a gay charter cruise on the 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas. The bust on the world's largest ship was the latest in a series of recent high-profile incidents, begging the question, are illicit drugs on cruise ships increasing?
"What you might be looking at is an increase in passenger numbers," Migdalia Travis, spokeswoman for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) field office in Miami, told AOL Travel News. "The amount of cruise passengers has increased and of course will account for an increase in contraband finds."
Travis notes both Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the world's two largest cruise ports, have experienced a substantial increase in traffic, with more and bigger ships – Fort Lauderdale saw cruise traffic rise 17% in the last fiscal year to more than 3.3 million passengers.
"You have millions of people arriving and only an extremely small percentage of them are subject to an enforcement action," Travis said.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, one major cruise line that asked not to be named, told AOL Travel News that out of its million-plus guests last year there were 127 instances of passengers found with illegal drugs onboard its ships, in most cases marijuana. The cruise line also recorded 36 instances of drugs found when passengers were trying to board – again, most marijuana for recreational use.
CBP uses drug-searching "dogs, technology and man-power" to find drugs on ships at U.S. ports, Travis said.
But the cruise lines also have their own efforts in place to keep drugs off their ships and find any drugs that do make their way onboard.
"While we are not in a position to comment on the specific operations of other cruise lines, we believe the recent drug-related arrests are the result of continued and ongoing cooperation between the cruise lines and law enforcement agencies," Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman Vance Gulliksen told AOL Travel News.
It was the security team on Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas that actually uncovered a big recent shipboard drug plot – an effort to use a ship to import drugs.
Three crew members of the Enchantment were busted on shore in Baltimore in December, for possession of $65,000 in cocaine. A few weeks later, federal authorities came on the ship with drug-sniffing dogs and found another $94,000 worth of heroin and cocaine, the drugs hidden in an employee locker, wrapped in silver duct tape.
The three men had allegedly picked up the drugs in the Dominican Republic with plans to sell the heroin and cocaine in Baltimore. They were indicted on charges of conspiring to import drugs.
Royal Gazette reported this month that a waiter on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas was found guilty of conspiring to import more than $425,000 worth of cocaine onto the island. Officials said Ricardo Stewart, 32, from Jamaica, was behind a plot that also involved other crew and passengers serving as mules to take the drugs off the ship. A sizeable stash was found hidden under a chair in the ship's disco.
But crew aren't the only ones who have been nabbed recently trying to use cruise ships to import drugs. In October, customs police in San Juan found about 6.48 kilograms of heroin, worth $324,000, in 15 pairs of shoes belonging to a 32-year-old woman disembarking Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas, after a seven-day cruise. It's believed the drugs were picked up in the Dominican Republic.
"It just did not seem right that a stylish woman of that age would be taking a cruise with 15 pairs of 20- or 30-year-old men's shoes," said Jeffrey Quinones of the CBP office in San Juan.
Improved Search Efforts
That Royal Caribbean appears to have taken the lead in drug enforcement is perhaps not surprising when you consider the global security department at parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is headed by Gary Bald, who previously held the third most senior post at the FBI.
In an interview with AOL Travel News, Bald opined that drugs on cruise ships are not on the rise.
"What we see is occasional successes by our joint team, our security folks and our law enforcement partners," he said. "It doesn't happen often for us, but it happens enough to keep us focused on it."
Royal Caribbean has "a pretty good track record of detecting if a crew member or guest is bringing drugs on our ships," Bald added. "It is not an issue but a focus because we don't want it to be a problem."
Drugs on cruise ships are, of course, nothing new.
"Back in the early '80s, people would walk down the hall and practically sell the stuff," said Michelle Fee, co-founder and CEO of national cruise travel agency Cruise Planners. "I've been onboard ships (recently) and seen dogs walking the corridors. There is much, much tighter security today than I witnessed 30 years ago."
Eddie Segev, director of fleet security for Royal Caribbean, says cruise lines in general have made "leaps and bounds" in security including in drug detection in the 16 years he's been in the cruise business.
Drug enforcement, Segev says, starts with training, and he says every shipboard employee from entry level to the ships' captains, "are trained in a general awareness of drugs."
A new Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act was signed by President Obama last summer, requiring cruise lines to tighten security measures and report alleged crimes. But Bald says Royal Caribbean already had required programs in place.
In the Baltimore case, the ship's security team notified law enforcement "that these folks were involved in drug trafficking," Bald said. "Baltimore was a success story. We were unsuccessful as we would have preferred to detect it before it got on the ship, but we did deter it before it went off the ship."
When it comes to cruise passengers bringing drugs on ships for recreational use, CBP's Travis says some passengers may naively think they won't get into trouble at sea. They also might not realize the gravity of the situation if they get caught onboard, especially if they try to bring an illegal substance back into the U.S.
"If you are carrying it is a violation of law. If you bring it back it would be trafficking," Travis warns. She says cruise passengers also forget the ports of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Island, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, fall under U.S. jurisdiction.
"I can tell you we inspect every ship that arrives in the U.S." Travis said. "We have many tools at our service and everyone is subject to inspection."
Cruise ships are also subject to inspection at foreign ports.
There have been several marijuana busts involving cruise passengers recently in Bermuda, which has stepped up its security efforts including more frequently bringing dogs on ships. The typical scenario, as experienced by a passenger on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship in July, is the passenger is hauled off the ship to jail, pleads guilty, is fined $1,500 and released.
Bald says Royal Caribbean uses a number of security measures to detect drugs including X-raying all luggage. The cruise line also sometimes calls in dogs, separate from CBP.
"We do have tools that people don't see, other methods to detect marijuana and other drugs," Bald said.
Guests too have a responsibility to report any illegal activity they encounter, he says.
Get Caught, Get Reported
When a passenger is caught with illegal drugs on a Royal Caribbean ship, "The gentleman or lady would be interviewed by the staff captain and security officer and we make a notification to law enforcement – and they would determine if an arrest would be made," Segev said.
"If a guest was smoking Mary Jane we would interact with them – and they would be kicked off the ship at the next port," Bald added.
Other cruise lines also operate with a similar "no tolerance" policy.
Bald says some cruises "may attract more attention from law enforcement than others."
In January, an annual "Jam Cruise" with acts including American Idol winner Taylor Hicks and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, was raided at the pier in Fort Lauderdale. CBP officials made 15 seizures on the MSC Poesia cruise including marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, hash oil, Ecstasy, prescription drugs and drug paraphernalia in mostly small quantities.
In the case of the Allure bust, the cabin of the accused seller was raided by federal agents in St. Thomas after a passenger was found with drugs and told investigators where he had purchased them.
In addition to drug enforcement efforts, cruise lines say they are getting requests to bring medical marijuana onboard of late.
Carnival's blogger John Heald wrote on Facebook in January, "It is not allowed, by the way, but that's now three requests in the last month or so."
Travel agency owner Fee says the real shocker is the "stupidity" of passengers who do bring drugs on cruise ships.
"You're hearing of people busted more often and it is shocking, people thinking they can do it," Fee said.
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