Do Cruise Ships Have a Drug Problem?

January 11, 2011
cruise-ship-drug-bust-CBP (6:27 p.m. EST) -- A headline in Tuesday's Baltimore Sun, "Authorities find more drugs on cruise ship in Baltimore," at first glimpse seemed like old news. That's because in December, Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas, which is homeporting in Charm City, was thrust in a most unwelcome spotlight when three crewmembers were nabbed smuggling cocaine and heroin.

However, the more recent bust on Enchantment of the Seas occurred over the weekend. According to a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, this one found some $94,000 worth of cocaine and heroin: "A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) K-9, during a joint CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations inspection, discovered more than two pounds of cocaine and heroin stored in a locker aboard the cruise ship Enchantment of the Seas in Baltimore on Saturday."

Another cruise ship, MSC's Poesia, also found itself in the unpleasant glare of a drug bust last week when, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a raid before a Jam Fest music-themed cruise even sailed out of port turned up "marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, hash oil, Ecstasy, prescription drugs and drug paraphernalia" in what the newspaper notes was "mostly small quantities."

Does the cruise industry have a drug problem?

Cynthia Martinez, a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman, told Cruise Critic today that drug busts onboard ships are very rare and have occurred "only a handful of times." She told us that the original December investigation began after an onboard security officer became suspicious and notified the authorities.

Similarly low-key about the recent rash of drug busts is CBP Public Affairs Officer Steve Sapp. He told us today that most cruise ship drug busts are for personal-use narcotics, typically resulting in an arrest or a no-tolerance fine of $500. And in fact, one drug discovery this weekend that didn't make the news headlines was that of a passenger onboard Carnival Pride, which also homeports in Baltimore, who was caught with a small amount of marijuana. That passenger was fined $500.

Still, Sapp did say that customs officers meet every ship that turns around in a U.S. port, though levels of inspection will vary. "We work with the ships for future enforcement to deter folks onboard from using the ship to smuggle in drugs," he said.

It's quite a different story in the U.K. where the country's Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) issued a press release last week warning that "drug traffickers may be stepping up efforts to target cruise liners as a method of smuggling cocaine from the Caribbean and South America to the lucrative markets in Europe."

In that release, SOCA advises cruise agencies and cruise lines how to recognize signs that passengers might be inclined to smuggle drugs or other contraband. What types of travelers might stand out? Passengers who book cruises at the last minute and pay in cash, or those who don't fit in -- such as young travelers who take a cruise on a line that targets the more sedentary set. It also advises cruise lines to be on the lookout for crewmembers who attempt to access areas of the ship not associated with their jobs or who appear to have close association with passengers who may be a risk.

Despite varying levels of concern, cruise lines are paying attention. Royal Caribbean's Martinez notes that while Royal Caribbean fully cooperates with law enforcement officials, all investigations are planned by federal agents, not the cruise lines. As well, the line has security procedures in place and works with customs officials in every port of call to prevent illegal substances from coming onboard. While she can't disclose security information, she can tell us that these measures are "less obvious than metal detectors, and there are times when we ramp up efforts, such as Spring Break."

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection