With alcohol, it’s a no brainer. Test for the amount circulating through the driver’s bloodstream with a proven breathalyzer, compare the results to the legal limits, and the case is made. Human bodies generally process alcohol at a defined pace, so when the test comes up positive there is no doubt the driver is under the influence at that time. It took a long time to get to this point. A primitive breathalyzer was first invented in 1927, vastly improved upon and patented in 1954, and taken even further in 1967 with the founding of Lion Laboratories. These developments eventually led to a recognizably modern version in 1980, 13 years after the United Kingdom adopted the first drunk driving laws.
With cannabis, it’s complicated. THC, the intoxicating ingredient in cannabis, is metabolized by the body into a variety of forms. These metabolites can be found in the body long after the intoxicating effects wear off, meaning that simple tests could easily lead to false positives. Further complicating the picture is that there is no scientifically-proven level of THC which would indicate impairment. Lack of scientific knowledge is the crux of the issue, as the plant’s illegal status has effectively eliminated research for the past 80 years or so.
Fortunately, companies and regulators are recognizing cannabis-impaired driving as a major public safety issue and are actively pursuing solutions. The state of California recently passed legislation to fund research efforts by the California Highway Patrol. The plan is to test drivers in a controlled environment, on CHP property, with the hopes of attaining a clearer picture of what constitutes cannabis impairment. This is a major part of the current problem – can regulators determine what levels of THC in the bloodstream indicate impairment?
Cannabix Technologies is approaching the problem from the other end, and its research could help inform public policy along the way. The company is developing the Cannabix Marijuana Breathalyzer with the hopes of introducing an accurate and convenient tool for measuring THC in the breath. Designed for both law enforcement and workplace applications, the breathalyzer utilizes FAIMS (high field asymmetric waveform ion mobility spectrometry) to detect and identify THC and its metabolites.
In conjunction with researchers from the University of Florida, the Cannabix team has guided the project through a few Beta versions. Along the way, scientists are learning about the intricacies of THC metabolism and detection. This past summer, Cannabix announced a breakthrough in collecting breath samples, enabling the detection of tiny amounts of metabolized THC. The company is filing patent applications, and updating prior applications, along the way to protect its intellectual property as it works toward a viable solution.
More recently, Cannabix’s marijuana breathalyzer featured in a CNN article discussing the obstacles to and potential solutions for the development of a reliable cannabis testing system. The company also recently announced significant improvements in the performance of its breathalyzer, showing a 6-fold increase in the sensitivity of the THC detection device. Cannabix is developing a more robust device designed for roadside use by law enforcement while simultaneously developing a smaller, more affordable version for home or workplace markets.
A recent survey by AAA indicates that Americans have a fairly casual attitude toward driving while high on cannabis. About 70% of respondents think it’s unlikely that stoned drivers will be caught, which makes sense considering the lack of tools currently available to law enforcement. More concerning is the estimated 14.8 million drivers who reported driving within one hour of cannabis use in the last 30 days. On top of that, 7% of respondents thought it was acceptable to drive after using the drug (compared to 1.6% who approved of drinking and driving).
With the recent rise and spread of cannabis legalization, law enforcement agencies have been tasked with the massive project of educating the public about the dangers of driving high, while simultaneously developing procedures to get impaired drivers off of the streets. At this point, judging by the AAA survey, the education is going slowly and the public has no confidence in the ability of officials to enforce the laws on the books.
The recent California legislation is a step in the right direction, committing money and personnel to study the thorny question of what constitutes cannabis-impaired driving. That type of research could lead to a more clear and measurable definition of cannabis impairment. Concurrently, the research being conducted by Cannabix Technologies could lead to an accurate and convenient roadside test that can be used to measure THC levels against whatever guidelines the impairment research yields.
This is a sort of positive feedback loop, created by long-suppressed scientific research made possible by the wave of cannabis legalization sweeping across the continent. Just as scientists are studying the potential medicinal effects of the plant after many years of prohibition, researchers are catching up on the potential downsides of cannabis use in everyday life. No, it’s not Reefer Madness with hallucinations, insanity, and killing. But driving under the influence is a serious public safety concern that is finally being addressed through the proper channels of scientific understanding. It’s about time.