It’s pretty clear that marijuana is starting to take the driver’s seat in American culture. Medical marijuana is now permitted in 23 states plus Washington, D.C., Colorado, and Washington state also allow recreational marijuana use. Oregon just officially joined their ranks July 1. Washington, D.C. and Alaska are waiting in the wings, as their voters passed recreational pot propositions in the 2014 elections. Legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes is likely to be a hot button issue in 2016 at both the state and federal levels.
It’s one thing if pot smokers enjoy a little bud, whatever their motivations, in the privacy of their own homes. But as cannabis products become more mainstream, society also has to make adjustments to make sure the drug isn’t misused to the point of affecting others who aren’t under the influence. Enter a pot breathalyzer, which police departments could use on the road to test if drivers had toked up before getting behind the wheel.
Cannabix Technologies, a Vancouver-based company, plans to be the first on the market, according to report from Reuters. The company’s latest update on the project says they’re testing a prototype and the technology is patent-pending. A research duo at Washington State University is working on a similar product, as is Colorad0-based Lifeloc Technologies. Lifeloc is well known for their production of traditional breathalyzers to detect alcohol, and last September received a $250,000 grant to continue its development of a product that could do the same for marijuana.
“There is no equivalent of a marijuana breathalyzer today. Law enforcement does not have a fast, reliable and non-invasive THC impairment test available at roadside,” said Barry Knott, Lifeloc’s president. In each of the cases, researchers are attempting to come up with a way to accurately test whether THC is present in the body, the psychoactive component in marijuana. Out of the gate, however, these new forms of breathalyzers might only be able to detect if someone has recently smoked pot, not how much is actually in his or her system.
“I think the first breathalyzer on the market will be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for the presence of THC at the time of the test, and in that sense it won’t provide a quantitative evidential measure,” Knott said in an interview with Reuters.
From a safety standpoint, there’s likely reason for police officers to know whether someone is potentially under the influence of marijuana. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that marijuana can have a negative effect on driving skills for up to three hours after smoking it and that after alcohol, it’s the most common drug detected among driving populations. “Low doses of THC moderately impair cognitive and psychomotor tasks associated with driving, while severe driving impairment is observed with high doses, chronic use and in combination with low doses of alcohol. The more difficult and unpredictable the task, the more likely marijuana will impair performance,” the administration wrote in a fact sheet.
In another study conducted by the administration, the number of drivers who anonymously said they had marijuana in their system while driving climbed 50% from 2007 to 2014.
The problem with pot breathalyzers
The question at hand is how the breathalyzer tests will be implemented, and how any legislative uniformity will come about with the jumbled laws surrounding marijuana use across the country. Traditional breathalyzers have been proven to accurately show whether a driver’s blood alcohol level is below the 0.08 legal limit. No such accuracy exists for marijuana equivalents, at least not yet.
What’s more, states can’t agree on what “driving under the influence” of marijuana is. Washington and Montana say that limit is 5 nanograms/milliliter. Pennsylvania, which has yet to legalize any form of marijuana consumption, has a 1 ng/mL limit. Some states have a zero tolerance policy. These are the potential clients that Cannabix hopes to reach, founder Kal Malhi told Reuters, since any presence of THC would confirm an officer’s suspicions. The ‘yes’ or ‘no’ breathalyzer answer would suffice in that case, he suggests.
Sure, marijuana breathalyzers would be much faster and less invasive than the blood and urine tests that are required now when an officer suspects someone smoked a joint before driving. But cannabis breathalyzer critics point to several studies that show THC levels linger for much longer on the breath of chronic marijuana smokers than occasional users, meaning they might have a ‘yes’ pop up on the test, even when someone else has a ‘no.’ What’s more, alcohol is one of the few drugs that has a standard rate of metabolism and effect on the body, no matter who that person is. Other drugs, including marijuana, affect individuals differently — even if the same amount and strain of drug was used.
Perhaps the most damning thing about a slow rollout of marijuana breathalyzers will be the price. Lifeloc sells its alcohol versions for $300 to $400 a pop. For the cannabis version still in development, the company thinks it could market each one for between $2,500 and $3,500. Take a look at your municipal police department budget sometime — the money for each officer to have one of those likely isn’t there.
It’s probably because of these reasons that a marijuana breathalyzer has been “just around the corner” for more than two years — it’ll take significant time to get to a place where the device can actually be a help for traffic stops. Technology like this will be helpful, but with the cost and the uncertainty around its accuracy right now, it’s not much better than judging pot use by the redness of the driver’s eyes.
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