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'Zero Tolerance' : Many in the boating community believe the Coast Guard has gone overboard by seizing craft when tiny amounts of drugs are found aboard.

May 15, 1988|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Mark Laws has no problem with Coast Guard officials launching a stern new effort to combat drug smuggling on the high seas. But "they've gone overboard," the Marina del Rey boat captain declared, with their "zero tolerance" crackdown, which has resulted in the confiscation of more than two dozen craft ranging from sailboats to shrimp boats to tugboats, from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, since mid-April.

Law's sentiments seem to reflect those of many in the boating community about the policy, which calls for the seizure of U.S.-flagged vessels if even the most minuscule amounts of narcotics are discovered on board.

In one highly publicized case, the Ark Royal, a $2.5-million yacht owned by an Irvine firm, was seized in the Yucatan Channel, 260 miles southwest of Key West, after Coast Guard officers who boarded for a routine documents check found one-tenth of an ounce of marijuana in a trash can and a drawer.

And on Saturday, the luxury yacht Monkey Business, which former presidential candidate Gary Hart once used for a trip to the Bahamas with model Donna Rice, was back in the news when it was confiscated by Coast Guard officers who found 1/28 of an ounce of marijuana aboard.

"According to 'zero tolerance,' if we find enough to test positive it's enough to seize the vessel," said Petty Officer Dan Vogeley. The Monkey Business was boarded 22 miles northwest of Bimini for a routine search and was escorted back to a Coast Guard base in Miami Beach. In a later dockside search, eight more grams of marijuana was found on the 82-foot vessel in a garment hanging in a closet.

"Zero tolerance" is designed "to send a message to boaters that no amount of illegal drugs is acceptable," according to Coast Guard spokesman Brad Smith.

But many boaters in Southern California and throughout the country complain that authorities are wasting precious resources at a time when the Coast Guard has been forced to reduce essential patrol and emergency service because of Reagan Administration budget cutbacks.

In interviews conducted last week in Southern California ports, virtually all boaters said they opposed the use of drugs aboard ship and favored hard-hitting enforcement efforts against drug smugglers. But most added that they also strongly opposed the inequity of boats being confiscated for the seizure of illicit substances so small in quantity that it would result in a mere ticket on land.

"I'd like to see them go back to being the old Coast Guard," said Bill Russell, captain of a 55-foot yacht in San Diego. "Now they are a police department."

Or as Laws, 26, who skippers a 52-foot private sport fishing boat, put it: "It's going to overwork the Coast Guard. It's drastic, man."

Some Patrols Eliminated

Indeed, the Coast Guard is so financially strapped this year, acknowledged spokesman Nicholas Sandifer, that it has eliminated routine search-and-rescue patrols, closed 53 facilities and retired two aging vessels. What's more, said Sandifer in a telephone interview from Washington, the Coast Guard has cut back its routine drug patrols by more than 50%.

"We are out there, but less," Sandifer said. With the "zero-tolerance" program, he added, "What we are doing is getting a lot of light and generating a lot of ink and TV time."

On the West Coast, Coast Guard officials have thus far seized eight boats, turning them over to U.S. Customs officials to assess fines or to institute forfeiture proceedings. Customs spokesman John Miller said Friday that five of the boats have been returned to their owners and that forfeiture will be sought in the other cases.

Even though the Ark Royal was released after the owner paid $1,600 in fines, the government intends to keep crafts, Miller emphasized, unless owners "could not conceivably have known (drug use) was happening and have demonstrated efforts to discourage their crews from using drugs."

"Zero tolerance," which has led to an angry petition drive among Gulf of Mexico boaters and stiff criticism from national civil liberties groups, has also stirred a wave of resentment--and even some changes in plans--among those in Southern Californian boating circles.

Dr. Joseph Tangredi had organized a party this weekend for 40 people on his 60-foot, $1-million motor yacht moored at the Kona Marina in San Diego. But Tangredi, a professor of surgery from the University of Nevada, said he canceled the gala because of "zero tolerance."

"I'm afraid . . . they will hold me responsible for the criminal intent of someone else," he said. "We are not law enforcement" officers.

"It's ridiculous," said Judi Oergel, owner of the 50-foot houseboat Have a Party, docked in Marina del Rey. "If you get arrested for drunk driving, they don't confiscate your car."

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