Ever since English doctor Francis E. Anstie observed in 1874 that people who consumed alcohol excreted it in their breath, there has been a long pursuit of finding a way of being able to determine a quantifiable level of their impairment.
In 1927, Chicago chemist William Duncan McNally invented a chemical-and-water-based breathalyzer that some housewives reportedly used to determine if their husbands had been drinking, but it wasn’t until 1931 that Rolla Harger at the Indiana University School of Medicine developed the first roadside testing device; the ‘drunkometer.’
The ‘drunkometer’ collected the subject’s breath into a balloon and then pumped it through a chemical solution. The level of color change in the substance indicated what the person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was.
As technology has progressed in the decades since the first use of Harger’s meter, breathalyzers have changed, and more advanced devices now exist.
But alcohol isn’t the only substance in the modern world that’s on people’s radar for things to test drivers for. In 2017, cannabis continues to climb its way back into mainstream acceptance as it becomes legal in an ever-growing number of locales worldwide.
Naturally, driving high is becoming a much hotter topic.
The operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or any other substance that increases impairment is ill-advised due to the increased risk of physical injury to one’s self and others. But because of individual tolerance levels and other factors, how high someone is isn’t something that’s always easy to prove, with the aid of a device or not.
Scientific American recently quoted retired Los Angeles County Sheriff deputy Nick Morrow on the subject;
“The good thing about the U.S. is if there’s a way to make a dollar, you can bet people will be lined up around the block to make the next best mousetrap. That’s what’s going on with cannabis testing. Breath, oral, fluid, saliva—all of them are competing to come out with the easiest, greatest devices. Maybe some of those devices aren’t ready for prime time yet, but everybody wants to get the patents. As far as having something that really works, defense and prosecutors can agree—the science is not there yet.”
While actual impairment may be tough to prove at this point in time, as Morrow said, there are currently companies that are developing roadside cannabis testing devices.
In 2016, Oakland-based Hound Labs unveiled a cannabis breathalyzer that they’d been working on for some time. CEO Mike Lynn, a local ER doctor and Alameda County Sheriff’s reserve officer assisted in a series of field tests in which drivers voluntarily blew into the device after being pulled over.
The device, which also tests BAC is now going through clinical trials at the University of San Francisco and can detect THC molecules in a person’s breath for up to two hours after consumption.
Based out of Burnaby, British Colombia, Cannabix Technologies Inc is working with the Yost Research Group at the University of Florida to develop their own cannabis breathalyzer. The device works similar to the one being developed by Hound Labs, using transportable highly-sensitive liquid chromatography mass spectrometers (LCMS).
While these devices can detect amounts of THC in a person’s breath, they still fail to address the actual issue: level of impairment.
In 2017, cannabis is an evolved form of itself. Marijuana concentrates, and flowers that are bred to produce higher levels of THC used to be uncommon but are now widespread. And while there may be elevated levels of cannabinoids in the products used by the modern cannabis consumer, that doesn’t necessarily translate into impairment by default.
There is a phenomenon associated with cannabis where its euphoric effects become diminished with use over time. To help reset the way the plant affects them psychoactively, some cannabis users employ a temporary cessation practice known as a tolerance break.
Euphoric effects are not the primary focus for medicinal cannabis patients, so tolerance breaks generally apply to recreational use.
But while some opt to stop smoking cannabis for a while, the tolerance phenomenon has helped stir people into developing the high-potency products that now exist on the modern marijuana market. But even still, as potency has increased, so has people’s tolerance.
Tolerance level varies from person to person; some people can get high very easily where others may not. An inexperienced user may feel a more intense high after inhaling a couple of hits from a pipe or a joint, whereas someone who is accustomed to taking in more THC may not feel any noticeable effects without consuming the cannabinoid in more significant quantities.
Appearing to acknowledge the tolerance phenomenon, a ruling from the Arizona Court of Appeals in January 2017 gave medicinal cannabis patients a chance to prove themselves in court when Judge Diane M. Johnson ruled that Arizona law doesn’t set a legal level for THC intoxication.
Under Johnson’s ruling, the burden of proof for impairment shifted from the patient to the police officer. The judgment allows the patient to cross-examine the office and hear testimony from state forensic experts.
No one wants impaired people getting behind the wheel of a car and endangering lives because the risk is too high. So the notion of having the ability to determine whether or not someone can drive safely is not an unreasonable one and plays a vital role in the safety of society.
Modern breathalyzers work very well in determining a person’s intoxication by measuring their BAC. But at this point in time, no such device exists for cannabis users.
While there are numerous studies that show driving high poses a negligible risk, caution is still advisable. Aside from the fact that devices are currently being developed with the intent of catching stoned drivers on THC level alone, high or not, discretion is the job of every driver and safety should always remain the number-one priority when one gets behind the wheel.