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Is Washington Developing a Breathalyzer for Cannabis?

Breathalyzer for Cannabis

While federal lawmakers work on compromises that could finally push a marijuana decriminalization bill through the Senate, could it be that a non-regulating government agency is looking to develop a breathalyzer for cannabis? It would seem that way.

According to Marijuana Moment, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) plans to spend in excess of $1.4 million to study how long cannabis compounds remain on a person’s breath following consumption. The research is intended to provide a basis for developing a roadside test similar to the breathalyzer for alcohol.

The breathalyzer test has proven highly effective over the years. It is fairly accurate at determining whether a person is driving under the influence of alcohol. Developing a similar test for cannabis could make it easier for states currently restricting recreational cannabis to loosen up.

Looking for Contractor

The NIST is apparently in the process of looking for a contractor to handle the study. It is expected that the contractor will recruit participants, collect breath samples from them, and then send the samples to federal laboratories for analysis.

It is ironic that the agency will require the contractor to make sure participants consume legal-market cannabis prior to samples being taken. Why? Because even cannabis that is legal in dozens of states is still illegal in Washington. So really, is there any such thing as legal-market cannabis?

Solidifying DUI Laws

All ironies and inconsistencies aside, one of the benefits of a reliable breath test would be the ability for states to solidify their DUI laws. States with legalized marijuana do have laws on the books designed to prevent driving under the influence of the drug. But those laws often lack teeth for no other reason than the fact that charges are often left up to the discretion of law enforcement officers.

In terms of alcohol DUI, an officer can administer a reliable roadside breathalyzer test. Even a blood test taken hours later is fairly reliable. When it comes to cannabis, not so much. Cannabis metabolites can remain in the system for weeks at a time. For officers to make an arrest and press charges, they need to make the case that they observed behavior consistent with cannabis intoxication.

DUI and Medical Users

Developing a roadside breath test raises questions about potential DUI offenses among medical cannabis users. Imagine a patient obtaining medical cannabis at Park City Utah’s Deseret Wellness. The patient takes a dose and then hangs out for a while before heading home. What if he is pulled over by law enforcement?

The patient is in possession of state-legal medical cannabis. He has also consumed his cannabis legally. Yet despite a valid medical cannabis card giving him the legal right to obtain and use cannabis, it doesn’t equate to a legal right to drive under the influence.

A Lot of Questions to Answer

Developing a roadside breath test for cannabis is a work in progress. While both Washington and private sector players are working on it, the very concept raises a lot of questions that need answering. Among them is whether a viable breath test can ever be designed.

Alcohol breath tests are fairly reliable. Yet they are not perfect. The same goes for the chemical roadside tests that law enforcement officers utilize to detect opioids. If a future breath test for cannabis isn’t at least as reliable as the alcohol breathalyzer test, it may have no practical applications.

We will have to wait to see what the NIST comes up with. Either way, it appears as though the agency is attempting to develop a roadside breath test for cannabis.

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