New Marijuana Breathalyzer is a Dud

Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Sep 10, 2019 · 6 min read
Image credit: Dopemagazine.com

But That Doesn’t Stop Cops From Using It

As marijuana is rapidly being legalized throughout the United States, state, county, and city law and police forces are likewise in a mad dash to figure out how to maintain their arrest, conviction and incarceration rates, which have heretofore heavily relied on busting people for everything from paraphernalia, twigs and seeds, to pounds, to tons of the stuff. To date, 33 states have legalized marijuana in some form.

What’s a police state to do?

In Illinois, recreational use, possession and sale of the demon weed becomes perfectly legal on January 1 of next year. Medical marijuana has been legal for some time here, and possession of less than an ounce has also been basically decriminalized. But that hasn’t stopped cops from hassling and harassing, and yes, arresting, marijuana possessors and users and sellers on the streets of Chicago — especially the South and West Side streets of Chicago, where most black Chicagoans live. This means Chicago will become the second largest city in the country where marijuana is legal. (Los Angeles beat us by a few months, but California is still arguing over what it all means).

But, again, now that the whole enchilada will soon become a non-crime, what are cops supposed to do? Busting people, especially black people, for marijuana in Chicago and many other cities is something of a sport; indeed, it’s a traditional part of the normal routine among cops, to the point of…addiction. Will they, can they now break their habit? Or will they find new ways to feed it?

Hi-Tech To The Rescue

Enter the magical marijuana breathalyzer. Of course driving while high on anything is always taboo. In terms of marijuana-use detection, current breathalyzers do not and cannot accurately measure either the amount and certainly not the effect of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in one’s system. And, because THC, the “active ingredient” of marijuana, metabolizes far differently from alcohol, some police and prosecutors are hesitant to use results of the current methods in court.

Other THC testing procedures have traditionally used blood, hair, and urine to determine whether or not one is “high” on marijuana. Still, these tests only detect the presence of THC, not the amount, or for how long it has been since your last joint, or anything else for that matter. And the mere presence of THC does not indicate impairment. An urban legend confirms science in that THC can be detected in one’s system from thirty to as long as forty-five days.

However, University of Pittsburgh chemists and engineers claim to have resolved these issues by use of carbon nanotubes in their new breathalyzer. It works like this: THC molecules in your breath,

bind with the tubes and alter their electrical properties, while sensors detect levels of the compound with an accuracy comparable to, or better than, mass spectrometry, the gold standard for THC detection.

The semiconductor carbon nanotubes that we are using weren’t available even a few years ago,” said Sean Hwang, lead author of the paper published in the journal ACS Sensors. We used machine learning to “teach” the breathalyzer to recognize the presence of THC based on the electrical currents recovery time, even when there are other substances, like alcohol, present in the breath.

This sounds nice…all technical and such. But does this mean that this new breathalyzer, this new test, can determine how high a person is? Not really, say these researchers. It’s an ongoing “challenge” they are confronting and grappling with.

Indeed, Ervin Sejdic, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pitt and who has been tasked to build the prototype for this breathalyzer, readily admits that at this stage of development, his breathalyzer cannot determine how stoned someone is or is not. Yet, in the next breath, Professor Sejdic insists that his breathalyzer is nearly ready for mass production.

As NPR reports:

“With alcohol, you can figure out impairment by measuring the amount of alcohol in someone’s blood, which you can determine from a Breathalyzer using the ‘blood to breath,’ or ‘partition,’ ratio. Make that translation from breath to blood to brain, and you have a relatively accurate sense of how drunk someone is.

“Chris Halsor is a Denver attorney where pot has been legal since 2014. Halsor’s practice concentrates on issues around legal cannabis. ‘So when it comes to these marijuana breath tests…..that’s the million-dollar question right now,’ he says.

So, what does that question look like?

“Is there a specific ratio that links the amount of THC in someone’s breath to the amount in the person’s blood — and then to exactly how ‘high’ that person is?

“‘No’, Sejdic says, in answer to his own question. That correlation does not exist in this new breathalyzer and ‘is basically missing, from a scientific point of view.’

“In legal states, you’ll see road signs that say ‘Drive High, Get a DUI,’ but there has not been a reliable and practical way to enforce that,’ said Dr. Alex Star, whose lab developed the prototype. ‘There are debates in the legal community about what levels of THC would amount to a DUI, but creating such a device is an important first step toward making sure people don’t partake and drive.’”

Again, driving while impaired is a definite no-no. But, despite this new breathalyzer, there is, as of yet, no reliable, definitive, and accurate test to determine impairment after smoking weed; and comparison to alcohol consumption amounts to an “apples-to-oranges” analysis.

To Cops & Prosecutors: Doesn’t Matter How Much or How Little THC is in Your System

But none of this has stopped cops and the prosecutors they report to from conducting “checkpoint” stops to determine, simply, whether any amount whatsoever of THC is in folks’ systems. As reported last year, the Massachusetts State Police are using a saliva swab to detect drivers under the influence of cannabis. They tested about 170 people at sobriety checkpoints and drug treatment clinics using these swabs, but even they are reluctant to use these results in court.

Similar programs have been initiated in Colorado, California, Kansas, and Michigan.

Is Weed Making the Roads Safer?

That same report, on the contrary, revealed that legal weed may actually be making drivers safer. The Nevada Department of Public Safety reports that deaths from traffic accidents there have dropped by over 10 percent in the first year that marijuana was legalized for recreational use.

Prior to legalization in Nevada, between July 2016 and May 2017, 310 people died in traffic accidents, but in the year since legalization, between July 2017 and May 2018, that number has fallen to just 277.

More? A study published by the American Public Health Association found that states with legal medical cannabis have lower rates of traffic fatalities than states with full prohibition.

Yes, yes, yes.…. correlation does not necessarily mean causation. But the statistics cannot be ignored. These numbers indicate that legalization appears to actually make the roads safer, debunking even one’s commonsense belief that DUIs would likely increase with legalization.

But beyond commonsense, marijuana critics happily cite statistics indicating how very often people test positive for marijuana after car accidents. That is noteworthy as far as it goes….but it does not go far enough. What these naked numbers and assessments usually do not mention are the many numerous and varied other drugs, particularly alcohol or opiates, which are also found in auto crash victims’ systems. These drugs obviously have a much greater affect and effect on anyone’s motor skills.

So, let us summarize. What we have here is a shiny new device that will tell police that you have THC in your system; but it cannot tell them how long ago you indulged, how much you smoked or used, how high you are right this minute — or why you blew that stop sign.

Nor is there any medical or legal standard which determines or even suggests that one is “stoned” on marijuana. All of which leaves us exactly where we have always been: at the mercy of, at the “discretion” of individual police officers — at least until we can get into court, spend untold amounts of money on attorneys and experts, in order to “prove” that you were not “high” when the “arresting officer” pulled you over (or whenever he or she decided to confront you at any time or at any place).

So if these things do not perform as advertised (inform law enforcement of the level of one’s “impairment”), then what’s the point of having them, using them?

My guess is that this is more about shoring up and solidifying the American police state by providing it with yet another “tool” (think Rambo-style cops with military-grade equipment of every type except perhaps nuclear bombs, surveillance cameras everywhere, license plate readers, see-through-walls technology, eavesdropping through any or all of one’s personal “devices”).

The American police state is chomping at the bit to get this new breathalyzer into cops’ hands and they are just as eager to receive it.

Herbert Dyer, Jr.

Written by

Freelancer from before the earth began cooling. My beat, justice: racial, social, political, economic and cultural. I’m on FB, Twitter, Link, hdyerjr@gmail.com.

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