It may sound like something out of a Science Fiction novel (dystopian?), or like a conversation you and a buddy had the other night.
“Dude, what if we could mathematically tell how high we were? Like, make a chart of how stoned we are and the effects.”
But people are really fighting to develop a marijuana breathalyzer, like the ones used to tell how much someone has been drinking. Surprisingly, or not, there are people on both sides of the legalization debate calling for it. We all want to feel safe, and the road is already a hazardous place. As one may imagine, there are plenty of struggles in detecting if someone has been smoking the herb recently. There have been countless cases of people getting DUI tickets who have never smoked in their lives. On the other hand, there are others who got busted during their tolerance break because it was still in their system.
So, is the development of a marijuana breathalyzer a good idea, or is it even possible?
First, we need to look at how people are currently trying to tell if an individual is under the influence. For the longest time officers had to spot impaired drivers by noting their driving behavior, coordination, and physical cues. While states are slowly developing new methods many officers wish to go back to this way of policing. The reason is that many states are choosing to test THC content in the bloodstream.
One example is the state of Nevada, and they are known for being the most strict. The legal limit is lower than the federal standard for the Department of Transportation at two nanograms per milliliter while driving. Here one problem is that someone who has smoked in the distant past could test positive. Also to get the blood sample the officer must arrest the driver and have a warrant issued. It can take weeks to receive the results. Washington and Colorado have a limit of five nanograms while some of the other states that have legalized haven’t set limits. California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine, and Alaska are included in these states.
Next we need to see who is investing in the development of cannabis breathalyzers.
Here is where things begin to appear a little more possible. In the United States there are already companies beginning trials in the public sphere. Washington State University is working with an instrument maker called Chemring to develop their version of a breathalyzer. After waiting almost a year the scientists at WSU got federal permission to do their study. During the study the scientists recruited subjects who bought their own weed, smoked at home, and would give a sample. Needless to say it wasn’t very hard to find volunteers (who got paid around minimum wage to get high).
While in California, Hound Labs, is working with UC Berkeley scientists. They have actually started to give police “The Hound” to test on Californians. If you tested positive you weren’t arrested, but you weren’t able to continue driving either. As Hounds Lab CEO Mike Lynn said, “Measuring blood levels is one thing, judging impairment is another.” So while we have tech companies developing the instruments we also need appropriate regulation. “The Hound” can detect as little as half of a nanogram of THC in the system. The problem is that the relation of highness to amount of THC consumed varies from person to person. Also, everyone metabolizes THC at a different rate. Dr. Ryan Vandrey at Johns Hopkins University Medical School said people might have fifty to one hundred nanograms immediately after smoking but only two to ten nanograms ten minutes later. There were also instances of people testing positive for five nanograms of THC twenty-four hours later. Some other companies working on breathalyzers are Lifeloc Technologies of Colorado, and Cannabix Technologies Inc. of Vancouver B.C. as well as others throughout Europe.
For both parties, the cop and citizen, a breathalyzer seems less painful and intrusive.
As previously mentioned to attain a blood sample a suspect must be arrested and a warrant issued. The same goes for attaining a urine sample. With a breathalyzer, you can take the test on the road and be on your way. A company is developing a device that can detect both alcohol and THC levels at once. In 2009 Tom Bruno, a NIST research chemist, developed a technique known as PLOT-cryo. Bruno says that PLOT-cryo is an extremely sensitive technique for capturing and analyzing things in the vapor phase. Originally it was used with the machines that blow air on passenger and luggage aboard airplanes. PLOT-cryo would then sniff for traces of explosives. It has also been used to find evidence of arson. This technique has brought inventors closer to creating an ideal breathalyzer. We still have a long way to go but there’s only one way to develop and that’s through trial and error.
There are other techniques companies are trying to perfect.
One is cheek swabs or saliva tests. But these take time for the results to come back. Another is analyzing sweat on a person’s skin. Again test results are needed. And finally, if you really want to get futuristic, a smartphone-based eye scan. None of these may seem ideal, and who’s really to say what you do with your body, but they are far better than the Zero-Tolerance laws of Utah and Arizona. With Zero-Tolerance if you’re caught with weed on you then you’re automatically charged with a DUI. The insanity of the current laws is that they differ so much from state to state and from state to federal. As an advocate it’s hard to know which battles to fight and how. The technology of breathalyzers is still far behind the legislation on marijuana. It’s important to iron out the legalities and limits as the technologies come out. Nipping at the heals of the “Green Rush” is a rush to develop technologies that can detect marijuana. The first company to patent a widely used breathalyzer will have struck gold. This promotes grand promises and false hopes. Advocates need to look out for deceptive statistics and never fear voicing their opinions on the issue.