The Catch, Pt. 8: Zero tolerance

Part 8 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from his months aboard a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
The U.S. government has a zero-tolerance drug policy. If a Coast Guard vessel boarded our ship and found any amount of an illegal substance, not only the ship but also the processed fish would be seized. Since our livelihood is at stake, a zero-tolerance policy is also in force on board this ship. Several people failed the drug test administered to each of us during our pre-employment physical, and the ship has been searched twice. The first search took place just prior to our leaving Seattle. The fishing company contracts a private firm, “substance abuse specialists,” to conduct the searches. The crew was confined to the galley while two dogs were escorted throughout the vessel, living quarters included, sniffing and wagging their tails. Any drugs found would’ve been seized and the owner fired, of course, but the role of the investigators is not confined to detection or pointing fingers. In fact, as it was explained to us, the main purpose of the searches was to send a signal to the Coast Guard that this ship was clean and that it took drug abuse seriously, and, most important, that it was taking active steps to combat the problem.
“ZERO TOLERANCE is strictly enforced aboard our vessels. NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL WILL BE TOLERATED. Not only do you jeopardize the earnings of everyone by putting the vessel at risk of seizure, but you threaten the safety and well-being of you fellow crewmembers. Anyone consuming or possessing alcohol or any non-prescription drug will be fired immediately and confined on board until the vessel returns to port, where you are also subject to prosecution. IF THIS RULE POSES A LIFESTYLE PROBLEM FOR YOU, PLEASE WITHDRAW FROM THE APPLICATION PROCESS RIGHT NOW.”
Using the private company to conduct an anti-drug program avoids the legal hassles that law-enforcement agencies have to deal with, such as obtaining search warrants. When we signed our work contracts we agreed to conform to the drug policies contained in those contracts. Still, despite my desire to work and live in a drug-free environment, I have misgivings about drug policies that entail searches and involuntary testing, and I don’t agree at all with an across-the-board zero-tolerance policy. This ship has a crew of 70 people, and it is impossible for the fishing company to control the actions of each one of us, and yet we all suffer if one of us is caught with drugs. Furthermore, zero-tolerance violates basic constitutional rights such as due process. As for involuntary testing, it is not foolproof and, in the case of marijuana, can be deceiving, since marijuana remains detectable long after its last use. And it chips away at the legal safeguards of probable cause and self-incrimination. I talked with one of the investigators about these things and he agreed with me on each point, bur, he said, the problem must be dealt with, and until the courts produce some clarifications, there are going to be many gray areas to contend with.
Nice dogs, though. Not the stereotypical German shepherds with bared fangs and foamy mouths. A golden retriever and a golden lab, willing to have their ears scratched and their heads patted.
(Photo by Douglas Sundberg)