UBC Researchers Develop $15 Pot Breathalyzer

With the Canadian government recently announcing they intend to legalize pot in Canada in 2017, the problem of how to handle a new type of impaired driving is becoming a concern for police and the courts.

This past April at the United Nations, the Canadian Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, said in a prepared speech to delegates, “We will introduce legislation in spring 2017 that ensures we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals”.

One issue is that the breathalyzers, in device used by police for measuring the amount of alcohol in a driver’s breath, only can detect that. While using breath to test for the amount of alcohol in a person’s body dates as far back as 1874, modern breathalizers trace back to around 1954, and the science behind them are well understood, as well as common pitfalls, e.g. causes of false reading that might occur. Not so with detecting drugs in a person’s system that might similarly effect performance when operating a vehicle.

Now researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus have developed a “pot breathalyzer” — a handheld device similar to those used to detect alcohol.

“The sensor is very light. It’s less than 10 grams (less than the weight of two loonies). It’s low-powered. It’s portable. Once the reading is taken, the signal is transferred via a blue tooth connection to a smart phone or iPhone and it gives you the result of any gasses that you are interested in,” said UBC engineering professor Mina Hoorfar.

With decades-old marijuana laws being rolled back in Canada in internationally, the race to develop effective tools to detect it in motorists is on. Hoorfar is one of several researchers racing to develop a roadside breathalyzer to detect whether drivers are impaired by the drug in light of increasingly relaxed marijuana laws in Canada and the U.S.

One company in the race is Vancouver-based Cannabix Technologies, founded by a retired RCMP officer. president Kal Malhi. Cannabix won’t give an estimate of when its product might go on sale or what the costs will be, but has a prototype undergoing in-house and third-party testing. Other developers say they will be able to sell pot detector devices for a lot more than the widely used alcohol breathalyzers.

Cannabix is located in Vancouver with labs in Florida. Current testing for pot impairment used in U.S. states that have legalized pot relies on time-consuming blood tests that detect active THC.

There are other companies such as Colorado-based Lifeloc Technologies that are working on devices that will be able to detect it. Lifeloc sells alcohol breathalyzers for $300 to $400 but expects to charge $2,500 to $3,500 for its cannabis version.

The devices under development all aim to accurately detect the presence of THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis. But so far, they can’t provide enough evidence of impairment by themselves. Current accurate tests use saliva samples, such as used in Australia, but these can provide false positives as these can be read days after injection.

“I think the first breathalyzer on the market will be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for the presence of THC at the time of the test, and in that sense it won’t provide a quantitative evidential measure,” said Barry Knott, the chief executive of Lifeloc, which already makes alcohol breathalyzers. The size of the potential market is unclear, owing to widely varying estimates of cannabis use, and unreliable data on those driving under its influence. When ready, a roadside breathalyzer would replace the current complicated assortment of costly blood and urine tests that can take days to get a result. But even these tests are a long way from showing impairment, as the science on how cannabis affects driving is far from settled.

The legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana in several U.S. states has already revealed a number of challenges for law enforcement and safety advocates as they confront a surge in drivers who’ve smoked up, opening up a potentially lucrative markets for manufacturers to step into. In April, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced at a special United Nations session on drugs that legislation to begin the process of legalizing and regulating pot in Canada will be introduced in the spring of 2017.

Vancouver-based Cannabix Technologies, founded by a retired RCMP officer, is also developing a pot breathalyzer, as is Colorado-based Lifeloc Technologies and a chemistry professor-PhD student duo at Washington State University.

Cannabix Technologies president and former RCMP officer Kal Malhi says his company has raised millions of dollars to bring its marijuana breathalyzer to market.

But Hoorfar says her device is different because of its level of sensitivity and price. She says it only costs $15 to manufacture, and it can also detect alcohol and other drugs.

Hoorfar thinks the device could be used by law enforcement agencies, as well as by pot users who want to check how impaired they are before getting behind the wheel.

“They can buy it. They have it in their hand. If they are under the influence, they know about it,” Hoorfar said. “So they won’t sit behind the wheel and they won’t drive.”

She’s looking for investors and says the device could be on the market sometime next year.

Whatever your views on marijuana legalization or regulation are, there is a growing industry springing up around it. Canadian technology companies are taking advantage of it.

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