Just as marijuana legislation caught fire and swept through the US in less than 5 years, marijuana breathalyzers are all the rage now. But unlike the “high” anticipating enthusiasm that greeted marijuana legislation, the situation with pot breathalyzers is more like sheepishly using leaves to clean up after you soiled the park bench.
Love it or hate it, there’s no doubt that pot is here to stay in the US. Although, one consequence that the lawmakers probably never anticipated was that people would start turning up to work stoned to the bone and claiming it’s their right.
They sure never anticipated that the previously simple prospect of arresting a driver that is high as a lute would have to approached as carefully as you would pick a box in “Deal or No Deal”.
In fact, we’re beginning to wonder what they did anticipate.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana and a further 30 states have legalized medical pot. But no one seems to have critically considered how they’d regulate the thing after legalization.
Now, due to increasing concerns about public safety being threatened by inappropriate marijuana use, public authorities are looking for ways to ensure that they can nab stoned individuals before they cause public harm.
This concern has stimulated a technological arms race with the creation of functional marijuana breathalyzers as the ultimate goal. But how well can these breathalyzers work? Are they the solution to our pot problem?
The Promise of Marijuana Breathalyzers
Marijuana breathalyzers promise to do what has been thought almost impossible till now: detect whether an individual is currently high.
Before serious work began into the development of breathalyzers for detecting pot use, the usual tests that were used to determine if a person had indulged in marijuana were hair and urine tests.
But the problem with hair and urine tests is that they’re too effective. They can detect if a person has used marijuana (or any other drug) within the past few days or even weeks. What they can’t tell you though is whether a person is stoned at the moment of taking the test.
At this point, we must take a minute to clarify the difference between being stoned (or high for that matter) and having marijuana in the body system. Research has shown that when a person is stoned, it means that their motor and mental functions are impaired to some degree. This can affect their ability to properly function say when they’re driving their car or operating a crane.
But it’s not every time a person has marijuana in their system that they can be said to be stoned. This is because the drug can stay in a person’s system for much longer than the high they’ll get from it. So, you could have a smoke on Tuesday and still be showing marijuana in your system the next Tuesday.
Of course, there was no real problem with this before legalization of weed. If you were suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana, a cop would pull you over, give you a sobriety test and take a sample. If you were found with weed in your system, you faced the music.
But now, you can legally have weed in your system. So it’s no more a question of whether there’s weed in your system. The more relevant question now is: Are you high?
And marijuana breathalyzers are shaping up to be the game changer in this regard.
How Do Marijuana Breathalyzers Work?
In theory, marijuana breathalyzers measure the THC content in a person’s breath. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive agent in marijuana. The idea is that THC can only stay in the breath for 2-3 hours after smoking.
So, according to this study, if it shows up in someone’s breath, there’s a much higher likelihood that (a) they recently smoked and (b) they’re high as a jacked up sparrow on midsummer’s eve (emphasis ours).
Measuring THC content in one’s breath this way is much harder than it looks though. Unlike alcohol which occurs in breath to the ratio of parts per thousand, THC occurs far less, to the ratio of parts per trillion. That’s like “searching for six specific drops of water in 10 Olympic size pools put together”, according to Hound Labs CEO, Mike Lynn.
Hound Labs is one of the forerunners in the arms race towards functional pot breathalyzers. His company has already started clinical trials with their device and have even begun testing alongside some police departments.
Other companies like Cannabix Technologies and Lifeloc Technologies, makers of the alcohol breathalyzer, also have dogs in the fight. And with everybody claiming some sort of functional device that will accurately determine if a person is high, it’s now pretty much about who gets to market first.
Do Pot Breathalyzers Work as Well as They’re Said To?
Even though the companies racing towards a finished marijuana breathalyzer claim their devices work pretty well, it’s still suspect whether they’ll work as well as we’re being told. And most of the issues are down to the (unsurprisingly) erratic nature of weed.
Unlike alcohol, marijuana is not water-soluble. Instead, it is fat-soluble. This means that it goes directly into body fat after being consumed and can stay there for days, weeks or even up to a month.
While marijuana breathalyzers supposedly get around this problem by measuring THC content in the breath, there are also doubts on whether THC can authoritatively be said to last only for 2-3 hours on one’s breath. This study says it can last for much longer, up to 8 hours, or even far less than 2 hours, especially for folk who don’t indulge much.
Another thing that the breathalyzers don’t fully account for is the question of whether a person is actually high at the time of testing. It’s now generally agreed that THC behaves differently in serious weed users than it does in non-regular users.
For one, THC tends to stay longer in the system of serious users while it dissipates rather quickly for non-regulars. So there’s no common length of high-time. A person could get a hit and be okay in 30 minutes while another can still be high as a skunk 8 hours later. But with both individuals, you’d still get readings of THC in their breath and body system.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that there’s no accurate understanding of what amount of “high” causes impairment. The studies are just as erratic here, with some studies saying any amount of marijuana use can seriously compromise physical and mental ability while others say there may not be that much of impairment.
So, how high do you have to be to be culpable for a DUI? Some states say 1 nanogram of THC per milliliter, others say 5 and most say any amount of high is enough. The marijuana breathalyzers do absolutely nothing for this.
And when you add to this the fact that the breathalyzers don’t actually tell you whether a person is high at the moment or not, it becomes clear that there’s still a lot work to be done here.
Will We Be Seeing Marijuana Breathalyzers in Action Any Time Soon?
Hopefully, yes. Despite the challenges that face pot breathalyzer technology and the uneasy science behind it, the rapid THC screening it promises will be invaluable in the struggle to ensure that people stay safe.
The biggest risk of failing to find a solution to the problems of course is that stoned drivers will continue to pose a menace to the public. And while they may not be as dangerous as drunk drivers, they’re much worse than sober folk.
That’s not to say employers don’t have a stake here. Stoned persons operating equipment or working in jobs that can potentially harm the public are just as dangerous as a toddler with a loaded gun. A functional device can help employers put the choke on out of line workers and remind them who’s boss.
If the breathalyzers fail, law enforcement agencies and the police may not have much to fall back on. This Supreme Court ruling has pretty much ruled out blood testing, one of the more effective means of detecting pot use, for law enforcement agencies. So, most of the eggs are pretty much in one basket here.
Nonetheless, it’s best to abstain if you can, and give the authorities one less headache. If you can’t abstain, then at least don’t put yourself in situations where you can harm others.
If you need some help dropping the habit or if you want to work towards setting yourself some rules so you’re not a danger to others, you can get in touch with us at the Stonegate Center. What we do is help folks make sense of what they’re going through. Call us up at (817) 993-9733 or scoot on over to our website and start a conversation with us. You’ll be glad you did.
If you don’t need help, you might as well drop your two cents in the comments section below. Let us know what you feel about this article.
See you around.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.