Did a Cruise Line Kick Off Passengers for Possessing Tobacco?

May 1, 2012
(12:36 p.m. EDT) -- A North Carolina couple was booted off Freedom of the Seas for possession of an illegal drug -- only they say it was tobacco.

Mary and her husband Robert (they asked that we use only their first names) boarded the 3,634-passenger ship in Port Canaveral on April 22 for what was supposed to be a celebration of their fourth wedding anniversary.

Just after 3 p.m., some 3.5 hours after embarking, the couple was summoned to the guest services desk, says Mary, and led off the ship by security. Ship security screeners had discovered what appeared to be contraband in Robert's checked luggage; hidden inside a faux-hairspray can with a false-bottom -- an item often used to hide jewelry -- was a plastic bag containing what's been described as a green herb. There was also a pipe.

Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez told Cruise Critic that the item tested positive for a controlled substance in a field test conducted by RCI security and witnessed by Port Canaveral police officers. "The 'tobacco' was taken by law enforcement to be destroyed," Martinez wrote in an e-mail, and, per Royal Caribbean's Guest Conduct Policy, which prohibits "illegal substances" and states that the line can remove passengers who violate the policy, Mary and Robert were denied re-boarding.

Here's the counter-charge: Mary, an active members on the Cruise Critic message boards, said both on the forums and in e-mail correspondences with Cruise Critic that the alleged contraband was tobacco. "It was Halo Hookah's "summer swing," said Robert during a phone conversation -- a (legal) flavored smoke product containing, according to the brand's Web site, tobacco leaf, honey, glycerin and other flavors. Because Hookah Herb could be mistaken for marijuana, Robert said he chose to conceal the bag. "Looking back, hiding it might not have been a good idea," he said dryly.

Port officials agree that the contraband was tobacco and not an illegal substance. Port Canaveral spokeswoman Rosalind Harvey tells Cruise Critic that the test, which she confirmed was witnessed by officers, came up negative. "What appeared to be a typical baggy of cannabis and a chamber-type pipe turned out to be Hookah herb," explained Harvey in an e-mail. "A chemical test was conducted on the herb, which showed negative for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)."

An incident report acquired by Cruise Critic corroborates Harvey's comments.

Update, May 2, 2 p.m.: Port Canaveral spokeswoman Rosalind Harvey tell Cruise Critic that there will be no police report issued (not to be mistaken with the initial "incident report" linked above). "There was no criminal activity and it was handled entirely by the cruise line," she says.

Harvey says that cruise line security actually returned the items to Robert following the negative test, contradicting RCI's claims that they were destroyed. With the object back in his possession, Robert suggested "four or five" times that he would be happy to dispose of it. "I'll throw out the stuff and we'll go on with our trip," he says he told security.

Even so, Harvey tells us, the couple "was denied access." Says Robert: "They told me I was a high risk passenger and I couldn't go back on." Royal Caribbean returned the couples' luggage and the possessions left in their cabin, and Robert and Mary hastily left the terminal. Robert tells us they headed to Daytona Beach and booked a hotel, where they attempted to salvage their anniversary vacation.

Not surprisingly, Robert describes the whole ordeal as frustrating and extremely embarrassing.

Royal Caribbean declined to comment further on the incident and its associated conflicting reports.

Mary explained that Royal Caribbean told her in an e-mail that, because the cruise was cancelled, it would refund the couple's pre-booked, pre-paid items, including gratuities, beverage package and shore excursions. This totals roughly $700, according to Mary. But because they were denied boarding for breaching the guest conduct policy, Royal Caribbean's Martinez says they will not receive a refund for the cruise, on which the couple say they spent almost $3,000.

According to Royal Caribbean's Ticket Contract, passengers removed for breaching the guest conduct policy have "no claim against carrier whatsoever ... and carrier shall have no liability for refund, compensation loss or damages of passenger." We've reached out to Royal Caribbean for clarification on why the couple would get a refund for the beverage package, gratuities and shore excursions -- but not the cruise fare.

Robert and Mary have contacted an attorney.

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--by Dan Askin, News Editor