Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have developed a new THC breathalyzer, but does it have real-world application?
Throughout the legalization movement, a growing concern has been marijuana users while high. This is not an alarmist worry, either. One poll found that more than half of habitual cannabis users believe they can drive while stoned. In addition, a study released by AAA reported that more than 15 million Americans have gotten behind the wheel of a car within an hour of smoking cannabis.
As more states legalize cannabis in the coming years, this will only become more of a pressing issue for law enforcement. While police have had technology to measure lawful blood-alcohol levels of drivers for years, the same can’t be said for quantifying THC levels. (THC is the cannabinoid in marijuana that induces psychoactive sensations in users.) But in response to the developing need, scientists have been hard at work to develop a so-called marijuana breathalyzer.
Tech companies in California and Canada have both raised significant funding to get their own marijuana breathalyzers off the ground in recent weeks. But it’s been researchers from the University of Pittsburgh responsible for developing and patenting a working THC breathalyzer. Using nanotechnology, a possibly intoxicated will blow into the device. Then, those air molecules will bind with carbon tubes 100,000 times smaller than a human hair, which will effectively identify the level of THC molecules.
“We used machine learning to ‘teach’ the breathalyzer to recognize the presence of THC based on the electrical current’s recovery time, even when there are other substances, like alcohol, present in the breath,” Sean Hwang, a Pitt doctoral candidate in chemistry and lead author of a written report of the device in the journal ACS Sensor, said in a press release.
That said, the Pitt researchers’ breathalyzer has not been set for commercial use and was tested under pristine laboratory settings. In other words, we really have no idea about its possible real-world application. There’s a possibility this technology can only detect marijuana consumed via smoking—not by other methods like edibles, tinctures, and topicals, which have spread in popularity following legalization.
In addition, the effects of cannabis on users varies far differently than that of alcohol. How we measure someone’s inebriation, and whether that level is suitable for driving is not yet known. As is usual the case in the world of marijuana science, more research is necessary before setting such parameters. But it could be closer that we initially believed.