Since the launch of recreational cannabis in the United States, regulators have been scrambling to create an accurate, reliable roadside test for intoxication. Until an exciting recent invention out of the University of Pittsburgh, there wasn’t an infallible or timely way to prove someone was driving under the influence of THC.
In late August 2019, that all changed.
Researchers around the world have been frantically working to develop a reliable roadside test for cannabis intoxication. They have been doing so with intense global pressure from law enforcement agencies, who are increasingly concerned about people driving while stoned.
This frantic search may now be over thanks to research out of the University of Pittsburgh and its new innovative breathalyzer device.
Why Couldn’t We Test for Cannabis Intoxication Earlier?
Traditionally, there were three ways to test for cannabis consumption: urine analysis, blood sample, and saliva swab. Arguably the first two could determine whether or not someone had consumed the plant, but they didn’t accurately determine current intoxication levels. Furthermore, blood testing usually requires a warrant and lengthy delays, which aren’t exactly useful during roadside stops.
Oral swabs provide a more convenient and affordable roadside testing option – but again, they are not very accurate. Although a quick oral swab can determine whether or not you had recently consumed THC, it still doesn’t tell you much about blood levels. It also isn’t accurate the way a blood test is.
What’s the problem? Why can’t we test for THC like we test for alcohol?
Because of the way we metabolize cannabis, it acts differently than alcohol does within our bodies. With alcohol, the math is easy: more alcohol equals higher alcohol levels in the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, higher alcohol plasma levels mean greater intoxication. Essentially, the more you drink, the more intoxicated you become.
But with cannabis – it’s much more complicated. Gender, age, metabolism, body mass, and experience all impact how much THC enters into your bloodstream. It’s very normal for the same dose to effect two people much differently.
The New Weed Breathalyzer
Lawmakers across the country (and in Canada) are launching adult-use cannabis but haven’t quite sorted out how to quickly test for intoxication during roadside checks. That all might be about to change.
An interdisciplinary team from the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Chemistry has revolutionized the way a device detects THC in human breath. According to the press release, the team used machine learning to teach the device how to measure THC molecules in breath. The breathalyzer has been taught to detect THC even when there is alcohol present.
Using carbon nanotubes, which are a relatively recent discovery, the device is capable of capturing microscopic evidence of THC. These nanotubes are “tiny tubes of carbon 100,000 times smaller than a human hair.” As the breath passes over the nanotubes, the tiny THC molecules bind to the tubes, which in turn changes the electrical current. The electrical current signals to the device that THC is present.
According to the team, the device is highly accurate, even more so than mass spectrometry, “which is considered the gold standard for THC detection.”
What this Means for Medical Cannabis Patients
No matter if you choose to consume cannabis recreationally or medicinally, you should never drive under the influence. If you choose to combine with alcohol, the intoxicating effects are exponentially stronger.
If the statistics are true, many people feel like they can drive after smoking cannabis – but these sentiments sound a lot like the old ideas about driving while under the influence of alcohol. Not that long ago, many people felt very comfortable driving while drunk. It’s time to change our opinions on driving while stoned.
The science tells us that we do not drive better under the influence of THC. We know that driving while high leads to a higher risk of collision, perhaps as much as 30 percent greater. Alcohol, as a comparison, is 600 times greater.
As per the experts, if you are not a regular consumer, you’ll want to wait at least six hours after consumption before driving. There are no hard and fast rules for medical cannabis patients who use daily, which has led to some confusion. If you rely on cannabis daily for the treatment of chronic conditions, you might want to car-pool, rideshare, or take the bus instead of hopping in your car. It keeps you and other drivers safe, should you be more intoxicated than you feel.