Image via Flickr user Einar Jørgen Haraldseid
Clarification from Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML (June 18, 3:00 p.m.): "You claimed that NORML issues press releases opining blanket opposition to breath testing for THC, which is something we have never done and mischaracterizes our longstanding opposition to proposed per se cannabis DUI legislation. Further, the specific article attributed to me in High Times acknowledged limitations inherent to breath detection technology as a proposed means to determine whether or not a driver had recently used cannabis or was under its influence. These critiques are legitimate concerns and are/were applicable to the type of technology discussed in the papers cited but may or may not be applicable to Cannabix (which, obviously, was not the focus of my HT.com article)."
Yesterday, Kayla Ruble of VICE News reported on the rapid progress of weed-breathalyzer technology. It seems that as enforcement of the prohibition on marijuana slowly grinds to a halt, cops have to turn from hassling people just for having weed to hassling people because they used it before they got behind the wheel.
The thing is, though, this is as it should be. If stoners know what’s good for them, they need to push for an accurate and sane field pot test to be implemented in all jurisdictions.
The test that’s making news this week, the Cannabix Breathalyzer, was invented by retired Canadian Mounty Kal Malhi, who complained to his local paper, The Province, that “young people have no fear of driving after smoking.”
Noticing the lack of a practical solution to the problem, he developed his device at home in Vancouver. It’s similar in appearance and operation to an alcohol breathalyzer. In fact, it’s too similar. It should be green or something, but cops are notorious for having no design sense.
Image via Flickr user Komunews
But ugly or not, it offers a major benefit for stoners: It detects stoned drivers, not just drivers who have smoked weed lately. The Cannabix is only supposed to bust you if you've smoked in the past two hours.
Current field test kits for marijuana are garbage. They aren’t accurate, giving false negatives and finding more positive results in new smokers than those with a high tolerance, according to the New York Times. Cops often turn to more sensitive tests for cannabinoids in urine, blood, and saliva.
“The [new] device will determine THC levels, as opposed to cannabinoids, which can stay in the system for 72 hours,” Rav Mlait, the CEO of West Point Resources, which will license the product in North America, told VICE News. “That’s the problem with saliva testing.” Getting a DUI conviction when you haven’t smoked in three days is a drag to say the least.
And as for the danger of stoned drivers, Eduardo Romano, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, told Times reporter Maggie Koerth-Baker that while that marijuana contributes to the risk of getting in a crash, “its contribution is not as important as was expected.” Stoned drivers retain mental capacities drunk drivers lack, like short-term memory and problem solving. Stoned drivers also underestimate their driving skill rather than overestimate it. Still, weed appears to cause roughly a twofold increase in your risk of a crash. You’re a danger, but not nearly as much of a danger as a drunk driver.
So what’s a responsible stoner to do about the looming threat of an accurate field test for stoned driving? Go with it. Make that tiny sacrifice and stop being stoned while driving, and at the same time push for the field test to be refined even further.
I seriously doubt stoner culture will go this way.
Writers like Paul Armentano and Mike Adams of High Times often rail against the threat of a breathalyzer. They understand the issue, and they’ve made some good points, but their argument most often comes down to the blood level vs. actual impairment distinction. If the claims Kal Malhi is making about the Cannabix are true, it gives them much less room to argue against the test.
Law enforcement’s newfound interest in field weed tests is going to get thousands of stoned drivers busted soon, particularly if laws are put in place to make THC tests compulsory. At the moment, drivers can simply not consent to a weed test in some places, like Los Angeles, but that may not be the case much longer.
Although it remains to be seen if it’s all it’s cracked up to be, the Cannabix breathalyzer seems more fair than existing tests. Stoners should push for thorough testing of its capabilities. They should also press for laws that take into account the difference in danger between drunk and stoned driving.
Screencap from the NORML site
NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, could take the lead. Currently, when breathalyzers are brought up, NORML issues a press release detailing what seems to be blanket opposition, citing the same 72-hour problem as High Times, and dragging out shop-worn graphs showing that increased marijuana use in recent years hasn’t resulted in a greater number of auto fatalities, which is beside the point.
They apparently don’t sense what it’s going to look like when MADD takes an interest in the issue and starts waving signs at them with pictures of dead children.
Alternatively, they could get out in front of the issue. Rather than campaigning against any and all breathalyzers, which is bound to look like they’re just running from accountability, they could push for the Cannabix, or some even-more-accurate descendant thereof. Rather than insist that they all drive better stoned, they could push for studies to prove that the impairment is relatively slight. Those would be moves that would bolster public opinion.
There’s another interest group out there that that fights tooth-and-nail against any new regulation, and responds to criticism by becoming paranoid and defensive: the NRA. As stoners’ political power increases, they should do everything they can to be nothing like them.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.