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Colorado researchers consider possibility of a reliable marijuana breathalyzer

Colorado State Patrol, researchers consider possibility of a reliable marijuana breathalyzer
Colorado State Patrol, researchers consider possibility of a reliable marijuana breathalyzer 03:15

While there are technically marijuana breathalyzers on the market right now, neither researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder nor officials with the Colorado State Patrol believe they are good enough tools to actually help law enforcement determine if someone is under the influence and therefore not able to drive.

Sgt. Roger Meyers with Colorado State Patrol said it simply.

"As an agency, we decided that is not where we are going to go," he said.

Cinnamon Bidwell, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at CU, put it this way: "The subjective tools that are used right now are not a good system for anyone. There is an eagerness to try and push forward and we are trying to work as fast as we can."

That's why researchers are looking into the feasibility to actually create something that is reliable and a good tool. A new study's initial report shows promise in terms of being able to garner more information scientifically and being able to use that data to help make enforcement on the road safe and fair. The key is being able to detect cannabis after someone has recently used.


"This is super important for public safety -- the potential for roadside testing, but there are a lot of steps in this research pathway before we can establish whether a breathalyzer for cannabis will really be a viable tool for our public safety officers and moving forward for roadside testing," Bidwell said.

Bidwell explained it's a natural progression to want to have a similar testing device for officers as they do for detecting inebriation in alcohol, but it's like comparing apples to pinecones.

"With cannabis, the amount of the drug that stays in your body is very very small, almost like looking for a needle in a haystack even in somebody who has used quite a lot."

It also stays in your system for longer, which provides difficultly trying to establish timeline.

"Alcohol is metabolized through the body really quickly. It doesn't stick around. If you are using high levels it shows up in your breath, in your blood," Bidwell said. "Where as if you are a regular user of cannabis, it sticks around, it's stored in your fat, it is continuously metabolized in your body. So the meaning of having THC in your blood or biological tissue doesn't quite have the same meaning as alcohol."


CSP also admitted it's not where it would like to be concerning enforcement of marijuana.

"If we were more comfortable with cannabis we would be better at our jobs," Meyers said.

Aside from roadside testing for marijuana, Meyers said making sure their troopers understand the effects that marijuana -- including different versions of marijuana -- can do to a driver is important.

"From the ground up we are trying to learn about these new frontiers," Meyers said. "What it is doing to people, how it, preparations affect people. If we think that hey 'Somebody who does an edible is the same as someone smoking a joint' we are lost."

Bidwell agreed that there's little substantial data, and there's a lot to learn in terms of getting a solid handle on enforcing laws surrounding marijuana and driving.

"It continues to surprise people in terms of the gaps," Bidwell said. "The research has been really limited by the federal schedule one status, research has really been limited in this space, there are a lot of boxes to check and we are moving forward trying to check those boxes."

So, how soon could we see something? CU researchers say there's not an expected timeline, and that's kind of helpful considering they'll be able to determine if it's even possible without having to worry about creating a product that does not live up to standards they expect. Right now, they're just hopeful there will be some good that comes out of it, and it looks good so far.

"Our research is, initially, saying yes, we can do that breath collection after recent use, we can detect those cannabinoids and actually chemically quantify them in meaningful ways," Bidwell said. "Then the next step is breaking it down to studying people over time, comparing different products, what this looks like in an individual, and can we create meaningful thresholds like we have for alcohol, everyone knows .08 BAC, we are several steps away from that for cannabis but that is what we are looking forward."

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