THC Breathalyzer That Uses Nano Tech Faces Federal Road Blocks

By Paul Gaita 09/09/19

Nanotechnology may help law enforcement measure driver impairment due to marijuana use.

Image: 
Police officer stands in front of patrol car while holding up breathalyzer
photo via © John Roman | Dreamstime.com

NPR has reported on the development of a breathalyzer-type device that could be used by police to detect if an individual's ability to drive is impaired by THC.

The device, announced by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, uses nanontechnology to determine the presence of THC in a driver's breath in a manner similar to how breathalyzers can analyze alcohol impairment. 

The device – currently in prototype form – is the latest in a series of attempts to provide law enforcement with technological assistance in preventing traffic accidents and fatalities due to impairment; however, the roadblocks that have prevented those inventions from entering the mass market – namely, accurate levels of impairment and marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug, which prevents research – also stand in the path of the new device's further development.

Carbon Nanotubes Key To Marijuana Breathalyzer

The prototype for the device was constructed by Alexander Star, a chemistry professor who oversees the Star Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, with electrical and computer engineering professor Ervin Sedjic, who began work in 2016.

As NPR noted, the device uses carbon nanotubes – cylindrical molecules made of rolled-up sheets of single layer carbon atoms that measure less than 1/100,000 the size of a human hair that can be used in electronic, chemical and electrochemical devices – which bind to the molecules in THC – the psychoactive component in cannabis – when detected.

Lab tests showed that the nanotubes were able to detect THC in a breath sample that also contained components of carbon dioxide, ethanol, water, and acetone. The developers also established a baseline for THC in the device, which they claimed could avoid one of the lingering problems with other breathalyzer prototypes – the propensity for THC to remain in the bloodstream for weeks and even months after use, which skews the ability to determine if a driver is actually impaired while behind the wheel of a vehicle.

According to a press release from the university's Swanson School of Engineering, nanotechnology can "detect THC at levels comparable to or better than mass spectrometry, which is considered the gold standard for THC detection."

If the researchers are able to find an industrial partner, they said the device could be ready in "a few months."

Marijuana Still A Schedule I Drug

But even that may not be enough to make the researchers' device stand out from its predecessors. Sedjic acknowledged that conducting any researching using marijuana remains a challenge in the US due to its classification as a Schedule I drug and illegal by federal standards.

Without that information, researchers are faced with determining levels of impairment without the actual substance that caused the impairment; further hampering their end goal is the lack of cohesive or scientifically sound data that determines the level of impairment.

Currently, there are different rules in most states as to what constitutes THC impairment.

But as legalization efforts continue to mount in the United States, the researchers are hopeful that the government will take the necessary steps to allow more testing in order to put forward devices such as theirs for law enforcement.

"I think there will be some push even for the federal government to actually allow researchers to look and correlate these levels of smoking and impairment," said Sedjic to NPR. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Disqus comments
PaulG.jpg

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

Disqus comments