Drugs on board: How to recognise the signs

Have you ever wondered whether a member of your crew is impaired by drugs?
various drug paraphernalia scattered out on a wooden surface.

Symptoms of impairment, such as poor performance, mood swings, and lack of coordination, can put your vessel at risk. But sometimes it's difficult to tell whether someone's impairment is a result of using drugs. And, some people don't show any outward signs of being high, especially in the early days of addiction.

That's why we've compiled a list of things to be aware of, some of which might come as a surprise. Even if you don't think there's a problem on board at the moment, it pays to know the signs.


The signs

Whether spotted in the rubbish bin or in the corner of the wheelhouse, here are a few clues worth looking into:

A broken lighter

Lighters like this are often used for smoking methamphetamine (commonly known as meth or P). Removing the metal piece at the top creates a taller flame, making it easier to cook the drug.

Burnt spoons or bottle caps

Burnt spoons are synonymous with drug use. The powdered drug (in New Zealand, it's usually meth) is placed in a spoon along with a little water and cooked over a flame until it turns into liquid. Bottle caps can be used in a similar way, held with a pair of pliars.

Used, dried-up cotton‐wool

Cotton balls can be used as a filter for drugs that are cooked in a spoon or cap. The cotton ball is dropped into the spoon to strain the liquid and remove impurities.

Cut up plastic straws

There's no other logical use for a cut up straw — usually in 7‐12cm lengths — than for snorting drugs (most likely meth on New Zealand vessels). Another clue is the tube of a ballpoint pen (with the ink removed), which can be used in the same way.

Small snap-lock plastic bags

Meth and cannabis are often packaged in small snap-lock plastic bags. Bags that once contained meth are likely to have residue in their corners — a crystalline powder with an off‐white/light brown hue or chunky clear pieces. If you discover a tiny bag with devils on it (as shown), you can be fairly certain drugs are around. These bags are specifically designed to carry meth.

Wads of tin foil

  1. Cannabis — foil can be used to wrap cannabis in a small package known as a ‘foil’ or ‘tinny’, or
  2. Meth (or something similar) — foil can be used for heating drugs over a flame, leaving it blackened and with a burnt, chemical scent.

Razor blades and mirrors

Perhaps one of the more obvious signs, razor blades are often used to cut powdered drugs into lines so they can easily be snorted.

A mirror is sometimes used to cut the lines on because the powder doesn't stick to it and the powder can be clearly seen, so less is wasted. If you find a mirror with straight scratch marks on it you can assume drugs were involved.


This is probably the most obvious sign of all. Syringes are often used for injecting drugs like meth and heroin. If you discover one on board (and none of your crew use hypodermic needles for medical reasons), you should take immediate action.


Other common clues

Some popular ways of covering up substance abuse include:

  • using mouthwash or eating mints — to cover up the smell of drugs or alcohol
  • taking eye drops or wearing sunglasses — to mask bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils.


The danger of drugs

A fishing vessel is already a hazardous work environment — made even more so by being isolated from emergency services. So when someone is high and more likely to make a mistake or behave in a dangerous way, they put your business and livelihood at risk. They also endanger their own life and the lives of your crew.


What can you do?

If you discover signs of drug use on your vessel, it's crucial that you take action.

Talk to each member of your crew individually to:

  • outline your vessel's drug policy
  • determine whether they are using substances.

If they have a problem, support them in getting help.


Helpful resources to support you

The good news is help is available. Check out these online resources and treatment services:



If someone onboard has a drug problem support them in getting help.


Face the facts

If you drive a car while impaired by alcohol or drugs, you're 23 times more likely to have a fatal accident.

So if you're working on a fishing vessel while impaired by alcohol or drugs, you're potentially at least 23 times more likely to have a fatal accident.