New Coast Guard Order Makes Marijuana Dispensaries Off-Limits

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro offload bales of drugs during a drug offload in Coronado, California, July 11, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney)
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro offload bales of drugs during a drug offload in Coronado, California, July 11, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney)

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz issued a general order Tuesday banning Coasties from entering any business that grows, distributes, sells or otherwise deals with marijuana.

Pot may be legal for various uses in 33 states, but it remains an illicit substance under federal law, and the service's new general order is designed to send a message to Coast Guard men and women that they should steer clear, officials said during a phone call with Military.com.

Recognizing there has been "a shift in the social norms, especially because of the increased proliferation and availability of cannabis-based products," Schultz issued the new guidance to eliminate ambiguity, explained Cmdr. Matt Rooney, Policy and Standards Division chief at Coast Guard Headquarters.

"As a military organization, we have to be clear and direct to providing [guidance] to our members," Rooney said.

According to Coast Guard-wide message ACN 079/19, the new general order applies to uniformed Coast Guard members and prohibits them from entering brick-and-mortar establishments and mobile dispensaries and using online or delivery services.

The new order is punitive, but since the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not contain specific language barring service members from such businesses, punishment would fall under failure to obey a lawful order, with a maximum punishment of two years confinement, total forfeiture of pay and allowances, reduction to E-1 and a dishonorable discharge, according to officials.

Rooney said no specific event or activities prompted the new order. Instead, it is an effort to "protect our members ... and is a condition of our employment to ensure we remain mission ready."

"The culture in certain parts of the nation is shifting around marijuana ... we want to be clear to the work force in providing our expectation that consumption of marijuana is still prohibited," he said.

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Although cocaine makes up the bulk of the narcotics seized by the Coast Guard each year, the service continues to interdict marijuana shipments. In fiscal 2017, the service seized 31,190 pounds of pot on the high seas.

Schultz said this law enforcement mission is precisely the reason that Coast Guard men and women should "maintain a lifestyle that neither condones the use of illegal substances nor exposes them to accidental intake of illegal drugs."

"Any involvement with activities, events or entities that promote illegal drugs is contrary to the service's core values," Schultz wrote.

According to the message, service members are also excluded from investing in cannabis companies. Although the UCMJ does not explicitly prohibit investment in the industry, involvement can jeopardize a service member's security clearance under Defense Department policy.

They also could be prosecuted, Rooney said.

"If you are in the business of manufacturing or distributing marijuana, that is still a violation of the UCMJ, so if there is a direct investment or association with those who are participating in those endeavors, it could be a violation of the UCMJ."

The general order only pertains to the Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. The Defense Department has yet to issue similar guidance but is exploring its policies on cannabis company investments by service members.

Rooney also urged caution on using substances like hemp and cannabidiol, or CBD, which aren't illegal and are making their way into foods and dietary supplements as well as vape oils. While hemp and CBD may contain zero to trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, products with them are unregulated and may not be what they claim.

"We advise everyone to err on the side of caution," Rooney said. "If they have a desire to use a product that may or may not fall into the definition of what's prohibited, they should seek guidance or use caution."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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