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Should the Quest for a Cannabis Breathalyzer Continue?


The perils of driving under the influence of cannabis remain difficult to pin down.


The cannabis industry has proven that pot is ripe for innovation.  Dispensary shelves are full of sleek new vaporizers and scientifically engineered edibles. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that law enforcement is looking for a boost of technology on their end too.

One area of particular focus: cannabis breathalyzers. In theory, the unit functions like the breathalyzers used by police officers to detect BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) in drunk driving arrests. The rush to create a valid breathalyzer has been on for several years now, with Oakland’s Hound Labs currently advertising itself as “the first dual alcohol [and] marijuana breathalyzer manufacturer.”

Still, the push for perfection continues. Earlier this month, researchers at UCLA announced the discovery of “the key chemical necessary for the creation of a small, electronic marijuana breathalyzer.” The star of the report is a process by which a molecule of hydrogen is removed from the THC captured in one’s breath. When the molecule is removed, it oxidizes, which in turn changes its color in detectable ways.

“We want a simple breathalyzer that doesn’t require specialized training because a police officer is not a trained synthetic organic chemist,” said the paper’s lead author, Evan Darzi, in a press release announcing the news.

Meanwhile, Hound Labs continues to attract attention as well.

On May 13, a local ABC affiliate in Tulsa reported that Oklahoma lawmakers had filed a bill to “approve marijuana breathalyzers to be used throughout the state.” One of the congressmen who filed the legislation told ABC that he’d met with Hound Labs before putting the bill forward.

“I called them, they came to Oklahoma,” Rep. Scott Fetgatter said. “We met and decided to do a pilot program for law enforcement across the state.”

Should such a program be approved the bill will now face debate in the Senate it would represent a project valued at $300,000. With states considering substantial investments and companies constantly refining their technology, the reality of a cannabis breathalyzer in the belt of every cop appears to grow more imminent with each news update.

On the other side are the alarmed voices of those warning that gauging one’s sobriety based on THC levels is potentially faulty science.

“We’re applying the alcohol rules to a substance that doesn’t play by them,” Nick Morrow, a retired narcotics investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, told Sacramento’s CBS affiliate back in January.

The issue is rooted in the number of variables potentially at play in determining how a given amount of THC will impair an individual. Metrics such as a consumer’s weight, frequency of use, or relative tolerance may all factor into how quickly cannabinoids are processed through the body. The concern is that the current state of breathalyzers seemingly fails to account for the fact that the psychoactive properties of THC vary in strength and form from user to user. Were 10mg made to be the cutoff for impaired driving, what is a cancer patient, who may take 1000mg of THC a day to treat symptoms (and still be perfectly capable of operating her car), supposed to do?

A mounting pool of evidence collected by the cannabis reform advocacy group NORML reaffirms this stance.

In 2002, researchers looked over seven prior studies examining links between car accidents and THC. “The results to date of crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers with cannabinoids in the blood are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes,” they concluded. In another study published only last week, researchers at the University of Toronto gave subjects cannabis and then had them operate a driving simulator. They found similar results, summarizing that “therapeutic cannabis reduced overall mean speed with no effects on straightaway mean speed, straightaway lateral control, or brake latency.”

The University of Toronto team also noted that further investigation was warranted, which is an apt way to summarize where the matter stands.

In a sense, the process has worked backward. While we’ve managed to build a device capable of accurately telling us how much THC is within us at a given moment, we’ve yet to establish what having said THC in us objectively means. If universal baselines such as the 0.08 BAC limit in California cannot be established, what does a cannabis breathalyzer really do?

Hopefully, it’s the answer to that question that comes next.

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