Government starts showing `zero tolerance' for drug possession. US seizes boats and vehicles found with any amount of dope

``Zero tolerance'' is the talk of the docks. As the United States Customs Service turns one of its strongest antismuggling weapons on even casual drug users, the boat crowd has snapped to attention.

The seven-week-old federal policy of seizing vessels and vehicles for any trace of drugs found there is meant to batter down the recreational demand for drugs.

From commercial shrimpers, charter captains, and dock masters, the consensus runs that ``zero tolerance'' is unfairly treacherous to innocent boat owners and will have negligible impact on drug use.

One seizure here has drawn widespread attention. The 133-foot yacht Ark Royal - seized Saturday for having a 10th of an ounce of marijuana aboard - has been returned to its owner for a $1,000 fine and $600 towing fee. The owner successfully argued that not only was he innocent of the drug use, but he had diligently screened his crew for drug use.

Most owners of seized boats - at least 21 in the past three weeks - have not fared so well. All had marijuana or cocaine aboard their boats in amounts small enough to be evidence only of personal use. They include yachts, pleasure boats, and commercial fishing vessels. Many owners will get their boats back only if they buy them at public auction.

The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is considering a lawsuit prohibiting further seizures based on - among other things - Eighth Amendment guarantees against ``excessive'' punishments.

A group of Key West shrimpers is petitioning against ``zero tolerance'' after a shrimp boat was seized last week for small amounts of marijuana aboard.

Boaters ``are all very concerned about it, especially the commercial vessels,'' says dock master Marty Pryor of Miami Beach Marina.

Customs spokesman Michael Sheehan in Miami says a charter captain needs to show ``due diligence in his effort to keep drugs off his vessel.'' That means warning passengers against carrying drugs aboard, asking them individually if they carry drugs, and possibly asking for signed statements.

``There is serious consideration given to an innocent owner,'' Mr. Sheehan says. ``However, the proof must be substantial.''

Boats are just one small aspect of the zero-tolerance policy. Some 95 percent of the Customs Service seizures are of cars and trucks crossing land borders. About 650 vehicles have been seized since late March, roughly half at the Canada border and half at the Mexican border.

The government needs only ``probable cause'' to make a seizure. The burden then falls on the owner to prove he is both innocent and diligent in keeping his vehicle or vessel drug-free.

Martin Tritt, owner of Watson Island Fuel and Fishing Supply, is skeptical: ``I can only think that somebody who's into that is going to do it no matter what the penalties and worry about defending themselves later.''

But when Richard Entwistle skippers his ocean-sailing students to the Bahamas next month, he says: ``I'm going to ask them, if they have anything, please don't bring it on the boat.''

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