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The Weed Breathalyzer: Coming to a Town Near You

Legalization has become a part of our national Canadian discourse, and we are seeing an influx in the usage of recreational marijuana and cannabis, we are beginning to contend with different, increasingly complex issues of cannabis use in society. 

One such issue is the concern of driving under the influence. As more people partake legally,  the door has opened towards an increase of drivers driving under the influence of cannabis. This has always been a safety concern for any substance, from alcohol to even pharmaceuticals. Once any substance becomes legal, it becomes a matter of public concern, rightfully so. 

The Problem with Current Methods 

So, when it comes to legalization, undoubtedly there will be a push to understand what constitutes as “impairment” when smoking cannabis. Unlike with alcohol, which has had time to develop accurate field tools for the detection of impairment, there is a lack of tools that help detect or analyze cannabis use. Up until recently, cops have had to rely mostly on either observation or field sobriety tests that have been specifically developed for drunk driving. These tend to be inaccurate and not based on any science, leading to potentially bad judgment calls or human error. Further, tests such as these can easily be thwarted by the use of Visine, mouthwash or mints.  

Any tools that have been developed to test detect marijuana or cannabis use tend to take days to provide a result – and more alarmingly, these roadside tools fail to give accurate times; someone could have smoked either half an hour ago, or even seven days ago. The problem lies within the way the body absorbs THC – THC dissolves in fat, staying in your body for up to a month after use. In light of all these blockers, a team has come up with a cannabis breathalyzer test that easily measures the amount of THC in a user’s breath. This discovery comes with a whole set of new questions and concerns. Read on to learn more. 

A New, More Effective Way?

This device, developed by an interdisciplinary team from the University of Pittsburgh, was created by using carbon nanotubes that house sensors. Previous methods of testing for THC have relied heavily upon blood, urine or hair samples, making field testing out of the question, as seen above. How does it work, you may ask? The THC binds with the carbon in the breathalyzer and changes the electrical properties of the nanotubes, helping to immediately detect whether a person has recently smoked anything containing THC. While not perfect, initial trials have proven to be successful in early detection. 

In the past year, we’ve heard news of other cannabis-detecting technologies hitting the shelves. One notable one was from Hound Labs, who claims that their testing trials on their weed breathalyzer show that the THC molecule can “be detected in the breath for two to three hours after inhaling.” 

Is a Weed Breathalyzer Necessary?

While we have always known that legalization would come with a myriad of laws and other societal side effects such as this, we do wonder if a weed breathalyzer is even truly necessary? Does a test even prove something that we didn’t know before? For many years, driving under the influence of any drug or substance has been illegal; and as a response to that, police have already a myriad of ways to test whether someone is under the influence or not. 

And, we all know that there has been no sufficient evidence that ties cannabis use to impaired driving. A large scale U.S. Department of Transportation research study from 2015 determined that “after adjusting for age, gender, race and alcohol use, drivers who tested positive for marijuana were no more likely to crash than those who had not used any drugs or alcohol prior to driving.” Further, another study in the same year from the University of Iowa found that those who smoked and got behind the wheel were safer than those who drink and drive. 

What’s the Standard THC Limit?

Further, when it comes to assigning a legal limit, or a level to THC (similarly to alcohol consumption) the debate rages on. Globally, no one seems to be able to figure out what is true “impairment” when it comes to smoking weed or consuming cannabis. In Canada, legislation determining limits for blood drug concentration levels states that, “It should be noted that THC is a more complex molecule than alcohol and the science is unable to provide general guidance to drivers about how much cannabis can be consumed before it is unsafe to drive or before the proposed levels would be exceeded.” 

Not to mention other legislation in the UK that recognizes cannabis impairment as a possibility, but one that lasts for just one hour after consumption. A far cry from the 2-3 hours that other weed analyzers such as Hound Labs are proposing as a measurement. This loose terminology can be quite detrimental, and many parts of the United States are already imposing arbitrary limits on THC consumption, without a true scientific benchmark.

Whichever camp you’re in when it comes to cannabis and driving, a breathalyzer is in the works, and we can expect many law enforcement officials to be using it in no time. In truth, we can’t even be assured that the results provided will be accurate, and there is already a tendency with the alcohol breathalyzer to conflate breathalyzers with impairment. New technology can be really exciting – but we have seen great pitfalls with the current alcohol breathalyzers and hope that the next iteration for cannabis will be more thoughtfully created and measured. 

We’re not sold on the idea yet, but we’d love to hear what you think. Send us your thoughts or comment below and share how you feel about the weed breathalyzer. Necessary? Helpful, or harmful?

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