APR 25, 2016 9:30 AM PDT

Breathalyzer Detects Whether You're Too Stoned to Drive

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
A THC breath detector
It was bound to happen sooner or later – the development of a marijuana breathalyzer. Created by a team from the University of British Columbia (UBC), the handheld device detects the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in your breath vapors, letting cops know if you’re too “high” to be behind the wheels.
 
Marijuana was a popular drug long before it was legalized across several states in the US. This plant shows up in the archeological records 37 million years ago, and humans have been using this plant for various purposes 8,000 years ago. Besides medicinal uses, people have also found value in the plants’ seeds for nutrition and stems for durable fibers.
 
But today, marijuana is mostly known for its psychoactive effects, courtesy of the THC chemical. THC works by mimicking the natural cannabinoids in the body to stimulate thinking, memory, pleasure, and spatial perception. Specifically, THC acts like the neurotransmitter called anandamide, which regulates hunger, sleeping, and pain relief. This is why users experience these proverbial symptoms upon marijuana exposure.
 
But safety concerns surround marijuana users and the potential dangers they pose to other people, especially if they’re operating vehicles while high. And with the recent decriminalization of the substance, marijuana use behind the wheels could very well be a matter of public safety, argued Mina Hoorfar, UBC Okanagan engineering professor, who led the team to develop the THC breathalyzer.
 
The device is small, but easily detects presence of THC in a person’s breath vapors. "It's very easy to test for THC as it is a big molecule that stays in your breath for a long time," said Hoorfar. "There is a period of 12 hours after you have consumed THC when it can still be detected in your breath." In contrast to blood or saliva tests, the breathalyzer reports THC presence in real time. And it costs $15 to produce.
 

Yet, with this device in place to detect THC presence, we still don’t have a standard for determining if someone is “too high.” Furthermore, others argue that marijuana breathalyzers could turn up too many false positives, given that the chemicals linger around longer than the physical effects of the drug. They also argue against the validity of a breathalyzer test, questioning whether chemicals detected from the lungs can accurately reflect activities in the brain.
 
To these concerns, we need look no further than the original breathalyzer, created to detect alcohol intoxication. But until we agree upon a standard, like that for alcohol, the readings on the THC breathalyzer may be moot.
 
"This is a tool not just for the police, but perhaps more for self-testing and self-monitoring," said Hoorfar. "People can consciously make the choice to test themselves after they have consumed THC or alcohol."

Additional source: University of British Columbia
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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