With more states moving towards legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, authorities have similarly shifted their focus on addressing stoned drivers.
Officers may soon have a new tool to help them tackle the issue that, until now, has been challenging to crack down on.
Retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer Kal Malhi recently revealed a new marijuana breathalyzer he is developing in Vancouver that would more accurately detect whether an individual has smoked pot before getting behind the wheel.
After doing some reading on a trip in Sweden last year, Malhi realized technology to instantly test someone’s breath for marijuana did not exist. He subsequently developed the Cannabix Breathalyzer to create a device similar to that of an alcohol breath monitor used by police during traffic stops.
"Our society is changing our views on marijuana, it's becoming legalized in many states… young people have no fear of driving after smoking,” Malhi told The Province.
By testing a breath sample for the presence of THC in a person’s lungs, the Cannabix Breathalyzer would be able to instantly determine whether an individual has smoked marijuana in the last two hours.
“The device will determine the 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.”
Authorities currently use field sobriety tests or urine, blood, and saliva samples to test for the presence of marijuana in a driver’s system.
The problem with this sort of sampling is that weed can stay in someone’s system for days after they have smoked, meaning a positive result does not necessarily indicate a person was high while driving.
The patent pending design would return a positive or negative reading. Mlait explained that this analysis is geared towards US states with zero tolerance policies for driving under the influence of drugs.
“As per state requirements, it will be able to provide appropriate readings, in most states that’s zero tolerance,” he said, adding that they are developing technology to address states like Colorado where specific blood-level limits while driving have been established.
Since fully legalizing marijuana use, Washington and Colorado have both set legal blood-level limits of THC at 5 nanograms per milliliter.
Colorado Department of Transportation’s highway safety manager, Glenn Davis, told VICE News that his office would be interested in a device like the Cannabix Breathalyzer.
“We would look at any type of technology to help us with our challenges, he said, noting he had received an email from the company. “But it would be a process.”
According to Davis, officers can only use a Department of Health approved device on the side of the road that is used for determining blood alcohol. He said they would look at any device that would help an officer, but a marijuana breathalyzer is something that would need to get approval.
“We’re not taking a position on legalization, but we’re taking a real hard position on driving under the influence.”
In the meantime, the Department of Transportation is implementing other initiatives to combat marijuana impaired drivers. Davis said they are primarily focused on officer training and education.
“It’s always been on our radar, we hope [legalization] doesn’t have a big impact, but we realize there are going to be people trying that haven’t before,” he said. “We’re not taking a position on legalization, but we’re taking a real hard position on driving under the influence.”
Colorado’s DUI law has always covered both alcohol and drug use, but since Colorado legalized marijuana there has been an increased emphasis on high-level and mid-level officer training programs for detecting drug use in drivers.
The Department of Transportation has also launched the public campaign "Drive High, Get a DUI Campaign" in order to increase public awareness.
While Colorado tackles the challenges of detecting drivers under the influence of marijuana, in general the appropriate blood-level limit for drivers does not seem to have a definitive line.
Many point to the fact that each person’s ability to tolerate marijuana can vary widely depending on how it’s metabolized.
"It makes setting an absolute level where everyone is impaired, like we have for alcohol, much more difficult for marijuana and for other drugs," John Lacey, a traffic safety expert at the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation (PIRE), told NPR.
But Davis emphasized the fact that blood-levels, whether related to drug or alcohol, are not the cause of someone’s arrest and a marijuana breathalyzer will not change that.
“People are not arrested on the results of the device, they’re arrested based on their behavior,” he said.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
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