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Yacht-pot policy makes zero sense

May 11,1988

Sleep well, America. Your borders are safe.

Last Saturday, the Coast Guard cutter Tampa seized a luxury yacht in the Yucatan Channel after a search turned up 1/10th of an ounce of marijuana, scarcely enough to roll a joint.

The capture of the 133-foot Ark Royal was executed under Operation Zero Tolerance, a new policy that encourages the Coast Guard to probe the crannies of private boats. Guardsmen spent the weekend stopping vessels in South Florida; eight have been seized locally, including a shrimp boat carrying a misdemeanor amount of pot.

This isn't Zero Tolerance, it's zero intelligence.

Of all the idiotic ways to waste money and manpower, this is one of the all-time tops. It ranks with the infamous Florida City Roadblock of 1982, when hundreds of cars northbound from the Keys were stopped and randomly searched for drugs and illegal aliens.

The roadblock resulted in only a few seizures, and the State Attorney's Office refused to prosecute because of constitutional questions. Out of pure embarrassment, the debacle was not repeated.

Now comes Zero Tolerance, which permits the confiscation of any vessel carrying even minuscule amounts of drugs. Forget the fundamental questions of guilt or innocence: Who had possession of the stuff? Who carried it on the boat? Did the owner even know?

The ostensible point is to punish recreational drug consumers for their role in the nation's hellish narcotics problem.

On Sunday the Ark Royal was towed to Key West amid much fanfare and many mini-cams. What a blow against the drug cartels: a swank $2.5 million yacht in tow, all because of 1/10th of an ounce of pot!

Before you start cheering, consider this: The Ark Royal's owner was far away in California when his boat was seized. Not a shred of evidence connected him to the teaspoon of marijuana, or to any narcotics involvement. Yet he's the one who had to pay.

The Coast Guard returned the Ark Royal Tuesday, but what of the other Zero Tolerance cases? The U.S. government (meaning taxpayers) will spend a small fortune pursuing the seizures, only to get pounded in court.

The policy is rotten with holes: indiscriminate, inequitable, ineffective. Do charter captains now have to strip-search their customers before heading out for a day of deep-sea fishing? And what about the big cruise linerswhy isn't the Coast Guard boarding the S.S. Norway for a cabin-by-cabin shakedown?

Taking Zero Tolerance to its logical extreme, perhaps we'll see a day when the Coasties confiscate one of our own aircraft carriers because some dumb sailor stashed a joint in his bunk. Think of what the U.S.S. Nimitz would bring at public auction!

The very idea of using the Coast Guard for this headline-grabbing nonsense is an insult to the men and women who serve in the agency. If search-and-rescue has been officially replaced by search-and-seizure, then at least let them go for tonnage, not tokers.

All this year we've heard the Coast Guard brass complaining about the $100 million shortfall in the current budgeta deficit that's forcing cutbacks in the agency's interdiction efforts.

But if this is what they wanted the money for, then their budget deserves to be hacked. Give the extra millions to the DEA, or to local police. Shut down some crack houses. Put some real smugglers in jail.

There's no question that casual drug users fuel the underground narcotics economy, but confiscating private boatswhether it's the Ark Royal or a leaky dinghywon't change a thing. It certainly won't change anyone's mind about using grass or cocaine. That takes education, and education isn't as splashy as a fancy yacht.

Zero Tolerance is a stunt that displays the sinking desperation, and hypocrisy, of the so-called war on drugs. While Reagan's boys secretly negotiate a cushy exit for a dope-dealing tyrant in Panama, the Coast Guard is snooping after ski boats off Crandon Beach.

From Michigan, direct to you: drug-free urine March 27, 1987 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Drug czar would scare any pusher June 24, 1988