Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse On Board Ship - Guidelines for Owners and Masters on Preparation, Prevention, Protection and Response 2023 - 2024 Edition

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April 2023
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This publication provides guidance on how to combat drug trafficking at sea and to recognise the signs of drug use and dependence among crew members.

Considered the leading industry publication on the topic, this 2023 - 2024 edition has been fully updated by industry experts to assist shipping companies, Masters and officers to prepare, prevent, protect and respond when faced with drug trafficking and drug abuse at sea.

These Guidelines provide essential professional guidance for shipping companies, ports, Masters, ships’ officers, cargo owners, government officials, customs and the maritime industry as a whole. Use of these Guidelines can help to protect the shipping industry from the reputational and commercial damage that may be associated with drug incidents. They identify shipboard operational considerations and responses, as well as the training and procedures that are required both ashore and on board. Governments and other organisations should ensure that ports and ships are able to embrace a positive security culture by facilitating the necessary measures against the various types of threats from drug traffickers. This Guide provides information necessary for seafarers to act responsibly and in accordance with appropriate advice.

These Guidelines also explore all aspects of protection in port facilities, along with aspects of cooperation between ports and ships that can help prevent drug trafficking from taking place. Drug abuse and trafficking are not a self-contained threat, but are manifestations of a much wider assault on legitimate infrastructure and transport networks across the world. Whether this activity is orchestrated by criminal or terrorist organisations, the methodologies employed are sophisticated and dynamic. Successful responses need to be equally sophisticated and require a comprehensive and strategic approach to security, not just to a specific commodity or method of attack. Section B of these Guidelines details a number of specific measures that deal with the protection of physical assets and people, the protection of information and processes and the exponentially increasing challenges of cyber security.

The Scope of the Problem

Drug trafficking is often undertaken by sea because it enables traffickers to move high volumes of drugs from producing to consuming countries.

The volume of illicit drugs being moved in commercial traffic and trade continues to increase, posing challenges for

detection. There is no sign that illegal markets for drugs are saturated or that traffickers are encountering difficulty in identifying new or expanded sources of supply. Unfortunately, even massive seizures in recent years have failed to reduce the availability of drugs and any shortage would only manifest itself as an increase in street prices. Supply has clearly not been affected to any significant extent and all the signs suggest that greater quantities are being moved, frequently by more complex and less obvious routes than in the past and often by highly professional, organised criminal groups.

Evolving Threats

Changes in trade patterns between emerging and developing countries create opportunities not only for legitimate international companies but also for Transnational Organised Crime (TOC), which seeks to expose new markets and trade routes for illicit trafficking. New transport corridors between Asia and Africa, Asia and South America, and India and Asia increased activity between China and other States globally and the development of China’s ‘One belt, one road’ strategy is providing TOC with opportunities for exploitation.

Drugs are usually transported via indirect routes in an attempt to evade detection by enforcement agencies. Ships and cargoes originating from drug producing countries are more likely to be intercepted in countries with strong enforcement agencies, such as in Europe. Traffickers will forward cargo to countries that have weaker enforcement institutions and where officials can be bribed and then will transship the cargo on to the countries where the drug will be sold.

While many of the emerging economies offer attractive economic opportunities, they also represent significant corruption risk. Maritime companies, ports and ships must recognise and mitigate such risks.

It is essential that the maritime sector considers the risk presented by evolving trade routes, which enable access to economies with high risks of corruption (as detailed in the Transparency International Global Corruption Index) and, as a result, create a higher likelihood of exploitation by TOC.

A further threat is due to crew recruitment from non-traditional markets, requiring appropriate human resource strategies and robust recruitment processes such as pre-employment screening, certificate verification and vetting. If these are not embedded within organisational culture, this vulnerability will be exploited by TOC, exposing the will maritime sector to security breaches.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that drug markets are becoming increasingly complex as new synthetic drug varieties are engineered and manufactured each year. The use of different drugs by different age and demographic groups presents issues for organisations attempting to understand the threats from specific drugs. For further information on emerging drug trends, refer to Chapter 15.

Security Culture

A key enabler to the prevention and detection of drug trafficking and drug abuse is the existence of a strong security culture. This will serve to protect the sector from threat actors that seek to penetrate and overcome the physical, personal, personnel, procedural, information and cyber security measures that are adopted by the industry. One of the most vulnerable areas is the human element and, if addressed, this will serve to strengthen the industry’s ability to protect itself from exploitation. Ultimately, security is everyone’s responsibility.

Drug Trafficking Considerations

The nature and extent of drug trafficking in the maritime environment continues to evolve as traffickers adjust their methods and respond to external events. COVID-19, from 2020 onwards, and geopolitical events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have severely affected most countries and particularly maritime transportation, which is a key vector in drug trafficking.

  • Recent events have influenced the management of national borders and affected national security, altering established behaviours. In some cases, these are returning to previous methods of operations. However, the global logistics chain remains deeply affected by the impact of COVID-19 and its influence on wider economic changes. Examples from the UNODC and media reports in recent years include:

An increase in opiate seizures in the Indian Ocean (Suggesting that traffickers are increasingly looking to maritime routes via Africa as an easier trafficking route to circumvent increased controls and checks along the Balkan route)

  • changing levels of air traffic to Europe have resulted in an increase in cocaine shipments by sea from South America to Europe

(Reports from Colombia support an increase in the volumes of cocaine trafficked by ship and a decrease by land. Large seizures of cocaine in European and North/West African ports support the belief that larger volumes of cocaine were being trafficked by ship in recent years)

  • travel and customs restrictions, as well as economic circumstances, have made it harder for some producers to obtain precursor chemicals and for drug dealers to obtain the finished drugs

(With a market shortage of precursor chemicals, the quality of chemicals used has reduced to the point that dealers are selling substandard chemicals, with serious health implications, that would normally be rejected)

  • a reduction in drug purity has resulted in an increased risk of overdose

(Drug users feel a need to compensate with weaker products, which could result in an immediate overdose when previous drug purity levels are restored)

  • changes in the additives used in drug manufacture will have lasting consequences

(The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which creates rapid addiction, is increasingly being found in street drugs (most significantly cocaine))

many drug addicts in developed States have moved from heroin to synthetic benzodiazepines (‘street benzos’)????

(For Western societies this was not as a result of a shortage of heroin, but was because their conventional sources of income from begging and shoplifting stopped abruptly. ‘Street benzos’ are much cheaper).

This Guide fully takes into account the issues relating to the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on drug trafficking and drug abuse.

Considering the Implications for Merchant Shipping

Three principal factors must be borne in mind when considering the implications of illicit drug trafficking on any commercial means of transport, including merchant shipping:

  • The very high value of drugs, when trafficked in large quantities, has attracted the attention of major internationalcriminal organisations and terrorist groups. In Colombia, a gram of cocaine costs less to produce than a gram of coffee, although because of the risks associated with selling the drug the final price is much higher. A recent conservative estimate of the annual value of the illicit drug market was reported to be over US$426 billion. To put this into perspective, this is equivalent to 30% of the yearly value of the entire global oil and gas sector. With this value in mind, the possibility of instant violence on discovering any sizeable quantity of drugs, including armed attack, should not be overlooked and due precautions should always be taken
  • the professional trafficker rarely carries the drugs themself and usually finds an accomplice to do so. Merchant seafarers are frequently targeted by traffickers and are often not fully aware of the risks involved, which include long prison sentences and, in some countries, the death penalty. One or more members of a crew may be a facilitator, courier or addict, or a combination of these. A facilitator ensures the safe passage of the illicit commodity onto, within and from the ship. A courier is paid to transport drugs and will be tasked to bring the drugs onto the ship, stow them, remove them and land them. The courier is usually employed by the drug traffickers either because they have legitimate access to suitable places of concealment on board, such as cofferdams, tanks and store rooms, or because they are being paid ‘in kind’ or blackmailed because they are an addict or have another identified vulnerability. Couriers may have ‘minders’, whose responsibility it is to ensure that nothing prevents the courier from doing their job. It is not unusual for the courier to be unaware of the identity or even the existence of any minders. The minders may watch the loading or discharge of the cargo and may even be prepared to interfere with ship operations if the discovery of the illicit substances appears imminent
  • although there are regions that have a higher risk than others, there are no ‘safe’ shipping routes where operators can be certain that there are no illicit drugs on their ships. Direct sailings from countries of supply to countries of consumption are the most at risk and will receive special attention from customs authorities. However, increasing quantities of drugs are moving by circuitous routes, using ports in countries with no indigenous drug production industry to reduce the risk of interception in countries of destination

Section A – Preparation – Understanding the Security Challenges

Chapter 1 – All Ports and Seas are Vulnerable

1.1 Strategic Response

1.2 Defining the Problem

1.3 Preparation, Protection, Prevention and Response Drug and Alcohol (D&A) Policy

1.4 Drug and Alcohol (D&A) Policy

1.4.1 D&A Related Procedures

1.4.2 The Master’s Responsibilities

1.4.3 Legal Drug and Medication Use

1.4.4 Testing Procedure

1.5 An Introduction to Measures to Safeguard a Ship Against Drug Trafficking

1.6 Assessing the Risk of Drug Trafficking by Ship for Specific Routes

1.7 Global Drug Trafficking Route

1.7.1 Key Global Routes – Flows of Heroin from/to Countries (or Regions)

1.7.2 Key Global Routes – Flows of Cocaine from/to Countries (or Regions)

1.7.3 Key Global Routes – Flows of Methamphetamine from/to Countries (or Regions) Commentary on Key Drug Routes Affecting Merchant Shipping

1.8 Frequent Ports and Places Targeted by Drug Traffickers

1.8.1 High Profile Drug Seizures – Africa

1.8.2 High Profile Drug Seizures – The Americas

1.8.3 High Profile Drug Seizures – Middle East/Asia

1.8.4 High Profile Drug Seizures – Europe

1.8.5 High Profile Drug Seizures – Oceania

Chapter 2 – The Threat to Ships

2.1 Vulnerabilities of Shipping

2.2 Drug Seizures On Board Ship

2.2.1 Drug Seizures on Dry Cargo Vessels Across 2020 to 2023

2.2.2 Drug Seizures on Tankers Across 2020 to 2023

2.2.3 Drug Seizures on Passenger Ships Across 2020 to 2023

Chapter 3 – Risk Management

3.1 Security Strategy

3.2 The ISPS Code

3.2.1 Ship Security Plan

3.2.2 Designated Roles and Certification

3.3 The ILO/IMO Code of Practice on Security in Ports

3.4 STCW

3.4.1 Mandatory Security Training

3.4.2 STCW Drug Abuse Guidelines

3.5 The SAFE Framework of Standards

3.6 The Container Control Programme (CCP)

3.7 Guidelines for Prevention and Suppression of Illicit Drugs for International Shipping

Section B - Protection

Chapter 4 - Organisational Behaviour Leading to Enhanced Security Culture

4.1 Personnel Security Strategy

4.2 Personnel Control

4.3 Social Engineering

4.4 Procedural Protection Measures

4.5 Information Protection Measures

Chapter 5 – Physical Security Measures

5.1 Port Facility Protection Measures (Physical)

5.2 Port Facility Security Procedures

5.3 Ship Security Procedures

5.3.1 Role of the Ship Security Officer (SSO) on a Merchant Ship with Reference to Drug Trafficking Prevention

5.3.2 Ship Access Control and Identification

5.3.3 External Concealment Protection Measures on Ships

5.3.4 Hostile Reconnaissance

5.4 Port and Ship Cooperation

Chapter 6 – Cyber Security Measures

6.1 Cyber Risk and Drug Trafficking

6.2 How is Cyber-Enabled Trafficking Accomplished?

6.2.1 Online Hostile Reconnaissance

6.3 Cyber Protection Measures

6.4 Social Engineering by Electronic Means

6.5 Cyber Risk Management – Maritime Industry Requirements and Guidelines

Section C – Prevention

Chapter 7 – National and International Cooperation

7.1 Regional Cooperation Examples

7.2 Anti-Corruption and Anti-Bribery

7.2.1Identifying Bribery

Chapter 8 – Training and Education

8.1 Training Needs

8.2 Responsibilities for Delivery of Training Programmes

8.3 Training Slides

8.3.1 Suggested Presentation at Ship Level

8.3.2 Suggested Presentation at Corporate Level

Chapter 9 – Penalties and Prosecution

9.1 Legal Consequences

9.1.1 Maritime Labour Convention Requirements

9.2 National Penalties

9.3 Prosecuting Trafficking on the High Seas

Section D - Response

Chapter 10 - Tactical

10.1 Unusual Activity at Sea

10.2 Unusual Activity While in Port

10.3 Potential for Drug Trafficking on Cruise Ships

10.4 Potential for Drug Trafficking and Abuse on Yachts

10.4.1 Trade Routes

10.4.2 Notable Yacht Seizures

10.4.3 Actions in the Event of Drugs Found On Board

10.4.4 Drug Use and/or Abuse On Board Yachts

10.4.5 Company Policies

10.5 Suspicious Circumstances On Board

10.6 Incidents Involving Crew

10.6.1 Procedure Where Illegal Drug Use is Suspected

10.7 Medical Response

Chapter 11 – Operational

11.4.1 Dry Cargo

11.4.2 Tankers

11.4.3 Passenger/RoRo

11.5 Searching the Ship

11.5.1 Search Planning

11.5.2 Reactive Search

11.5.3 Targeted Search

11.5.4 Preventative Search

11.5.5 Methods of Searching

11.6 Additional Considerations

11.6.1 Freight Vehicles and Dumb Trailers

11.6.2 Other Freight

11.6.3 Ships’ Stores

11.6.4 Miscellaneous Deliveries to Ships and Ports

11.6.5 Search Duration/Time

Chapter 12 – Actions When Drugs are Found

12.1 Safety Considerations

12.2 Actions When Drugs are Found On Board

Section E – Recognition of Drugs

Chapter 13 – Drugs and Addiction

13.1 Broad Classification

13.2 Drug Addiction

13.2.1 Risk of Addiction – Genetic or Environmental

13.2.2 Physical Addiction

13.2.3 Psychological Addiction

13.3 Drugs Permitted On Board

Chapter 14 – Alcohol and Addiction

14.1 Alcohol Restrictions

14.2 Responding to Alcohol Abuse

14.3 Alcohol Addiction

14.44 Alcohol on Cruise Ships

Chapter 15 – Emerging Drug Trends

15.1 New Psychoactive Substances

15.1.2 Synthetic Benzodiazepines (BZDs)

15.2 Opioids

15.2.1 Fentanyl

15.2.2 Tramadol

15.3 Captagon

15.4 Cannabis Legalisation

Chapter 16 – Drug Characteristics and Identification

16.1 Cannabis

16.2 Opiates and Opioids

16.3 Cocaine

16.4 Hallucinogens (Psychedelics)

16.5 Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS) (and New Psychoactive Substances (NPS))

16.6 Sedative Drugs

Chapter 17 – Legitimate Packaged Chemical Cargoes

Annex 1 – Checklists – Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse On Board

1. Drug Trafficking – Security Procedure to Prevent Trafficking of Drugs On Board

2. Drug Trafficking – Search Procedure if Illegal Drugs are Believed to be On Board

3. Drug Trafficking – Procedure if a Crew Member is Suspected of Trafficking Drugs On Board

4. Drug Trafficking – Actions if Suspected Drugs are Discovered On Board

5. Drug Trafficking – Actions in the Event of Confirmed Drug Trafficking by a Crew Member On Board

6. Drug Trafficking – Actions if a Passenger is Confirmed as Trafficking Drugs On Board

7. Drug Abuse On Board – By a Crew Member

8. Drug Abuse On Board – By a Passenger

9. Familiarisation Checklist on Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse Awareness for New Joiners

Annex 2 - Warning Poster

Annex 3 - Drug Seizure Statistics in Ships, Ports and at Sea 2020–2023

Annex 4 - Customs Authority Contacts


Customs Authority Contacts


The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) is the principal international trade association for the shipping industry, representing shipowners and operators in all sectors and trades. ICS membership comprises national shipowners' associations in Asia, Europe and the Americas whose member shipping companies operate over 80% of the world's merchant tonnage.

Established in 1921, ICS is concerned with all technical, legal, employment affairs and policy issues that may affect international shipping.

ICS represents shipowners with the various intergovernmental regulatory bodies that impact on shipping, including the International Maritime Organization.

ICS also develops best practices and guidance, including a wide range of publications and free resources that are used by ship operators globally.



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Number of Pages:
Published Date:
April 2023
Book Height:
297 mm
Book Width:
210 mm
1.8 kg
Product Catalogue:
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Publication Date:
March 2023