Now that marijuana legalization is here, one of the biggest issues related to legalization are concerns over people operating motor vehicles while high. Law enforcement has enforced laws for drunk driving with their counterattack road checks, and the biggest deterrent has been the breathalyzer program. Taking a roadside breathalyzer is pretty black and white. If you blow above .08 then there’s little chance that you can dispute you aren’t intoxicated.
To date, there hasn’t been a marijuana breathalyzer put into widespread use by any police department in Canada. But, that looks like it’s about to change soon.
So, let’s look at developments in the technology and whether we can expect to see a breathalyzer test for marijuana at roadside checks soon.
Is There Such A Thing as A Marijuana Breathalyzer?
For those of you asking ‘can a breathalyzer detect drugs’, the answer is yes, there are now breathalyzers that can detect drugs. But, they’re very new and are currently not used by any police force in any of the Canadian Provinces. Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould recently approved a marijuana breathalyzer called the Dräger DrugTest 5000.
It is likely that some provincial police forces will use the marijuana breathalyzer soon, but the Vancouver Police Department has stated it will not be using the unit ‘at this time’. They cite concerns over its ability to function in cold weather and being too bulky for effective roadside use.
Over the next 5 years, the Federal Liberals have pledged 161 million dollars for police training and drug-testing equipment. What is uncertain is how they will evaluate the legality of the findings to determine impairment.
THC Impairment: The Grey Area
As it stands now, there is no clear legal definition of what level of THC constitutes impairment from marijuana. That is making it difficult for lawmakers in Canada to set a standard like the .08 that they have with alcohol.
The issue here is the substances themselves; alcohol is uniform in the way it affects the human body. The more you drink, the more drunk you become on a basic physiological level and how well you ‘tolerate’ alcohol isn’t a factor.
THC Doesn’t Work Like Alcohol
THC mimics an endogenous neurotransmitter called anandamide, and experienced users with a higher tolerance actually compensate for altered nerve signals. It has nothing to do with ‘perception’ the way it can with alcohol. Some people will be thoroughly impaired at 1 nanogram of THC per millilitre while other people will have very little actual impairment at 5 nanograms per millilitre.
Current tests are only capable of measuring marijuana metabolites, which remain in the body’s stored fat cells for an extended period of time after consumption. How long does THC stay in your system is a popular question, and the answer is that it stays stored in those fat cells and is detectable for up to 1 month.
How Is THC Impairment Measured?
Police officers do not have a reliable breathalyzer test at their disposal yet, and currently an officer suspecting impairment can only prove it through blood, urine, or hair tests for marijuana. Of course, officers cannot do these these types of tests for marijuana impairment when they pull over a vehicle. For that reason, they’re not practical or reliable for proving impairment beyond doubt right on the spot the same way an alcohol breathalyzer is.
Currently, Canadian police officers are using a 12-step drug recognition expert evaluation that tests a person’s muscle tone and eyes among other determinations. But, DRE (drug recognition expert) certified officers are in short supply, and it costs $18,000 to train an officer, which will take time and money. Also, some indicators may show up in subjects who have not used cannabis oil at all, so this form of testing is not yet accurate.
The Few Hours Window
This makes it so that there is a need is for a marijuana breathalyzer device that can prove consumption within a recent period of time. THC content in the blood rises rapidly and stays there for a few hours after cannabis is consumed by being smoked or eaten, and after that is subsides. While there, some of the drug’s notable effects that lend themselves to concerns about driving high are delayed reactions, time and space misperceptions, and propensity for being easily distracted.
During this ‘window’ it has been determined that THC is detectable in the breath of the user, and that’s where two companies who are leading the way in developing a marijuana breathalyzer are focusing their efforts. The first is Hound Labs in California, and their ‘The Hound’ breathalyzer is currently in trials with law enforcement in that State.
Canadian company Cannabix Technologies has something similar in a saliva tester that can indicate cannabis use within a recent time frame. Their model is designed for use by law enforcement or employers who want to ensure employees are not operating machinery while impaired.
These devices and other prototypes like it detect and quantify minute traces of THC in breath – even under five parts per trillion. The hope is that because THC is only detectable in breath for 2 to 3 hours after smoking or ingesting marijuana, this will be a legally-admissible means of proof of impairment. This however clears only one of the hurdles; there is still a need for a clear and logical definition of what level of concentration will constitute impairment.
So What’s Ahead?
It is clear that coming to this definition is a priority for the Federal Government, but how exactly they’re going to come to it remains to be seen. For the time being we can assume that any roadside marijuana breathalyzer is still a ways away from widespread implementation across the country. The same issue is at the forefront of similar efforts in U.S. States that have already legalized cannabis. What’s interesting to note is that their Transportation Authority found that some drivers actually drive with greater awareness of their surroundings due to overcompensating for the fact they know they are impaired after smoking.
So, it’s really not much of a question of how long THC stays in your system, but rather how can recent use be reliably detected in proving you’re not fit to drive a car. What is clearer is that there’s a 2-3-hour peak window of impairment where THC is detectable in your breath, and it seems this is where law enforcement is going to focus their efforts in developing a device that can take impaired drivers off the road.