Thursday, July 18, 2024

VCU Professor Develops THC Breathalyzer to Help Detect Driver Impairment

The VCU sign located at Shafer Street in Richmond. (Cassandra Loper, Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — A Virginia Commonwealth University professor and a partner are developing a new THC breathalyzer that could be used to quickly detect if someone is driving under the influence of cannabis.

VCU professor Emanuele Alves, who has a doctorate in forensic science, partnered with Wagner Pacheco, who has a doctorate in inorganic analytical chemistry and is an associate professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense. Pacheco traveled from Brazil earlier in the year to help develop the breathalyzer.

The device would offer immediate results and produce fewer false positives, according to Alves. Law enforcement and employers could test within a certain window of time for impairment that many tests, such as urine or hair analysis, do not offer. A blood test can track cannabis use within a 3-4 hour time frame, but is not a viable driver impairment option. Current THC breathalyzers take hours to achieve results.

The VCU-developed breathalyzer will also distinguish between THC and CBD presence in someone’s system, which have different effects. CBD does not get a user high and is often sold as supplemental or personal care products.

The device will produce a change in color if a person has THC in their system and a different color for CBD, according to Pacheco.

“Our expectation is that this THC breathalyzer could be so useful for society as it is the alcohol breathalyzer,” Pacheco said.

Law enforcement would be able to identify on-site if a driver is under the influence of THC. The breathalyzer could improve road safety by holding drivers accountable for driving impaired, Pacheco said. It is illegal to operate a vehicle while impaired.

The goal is to have the first prototype of the THC breathalyzer complete by 2025.

JM Pedini, development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said they do not agree with the development and eventual use of THC breathalyzers.

Studies have failed to prove that the presence of THC in breath is an indicator of either impairment or recent cannabis exposure, Pedini said. NORML has argued against the expansion of drug detection testing, and advocated instead for performance-based tests to determine someone’s sobriety.

Examples include the DRUID test, which is an app that measures cognitive and motor functioning to test for impairment. The test measures such things as the person’s reaction time, hand-eye coordination and balance. The measurements are then calculated and an impairment score is provided.

One reason NORML does not support THC breathalyzers is because the packaging of CBD products does not always accurately reflect its contents, according to Pedini.

“Because of the lack of regulatory oversight on products that are called CBD, a consumer may be of the belief that they are buying a product that contains just CBD when, in fact, it actually contains THC,” Pedini said.

The VCU Police Department issued 20 DUIs in the past year, two of which “indicated the presence of some drug or narcotic,” according to police Detective Frederick Wiggins.

Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational cannabis. Almost 80 deaths were reported in 2021 that involved a driver who had more than the allowed limit of THC, according to Axios Denver.

Richmond Police did not respond to requests for comment.

VCU Police complete field sobriety test training to help identify impairment and then can use other tests “to determine beyond that,” according to Wiggins.

There are still many steps before the breathalyzer is read for the market.

“The VCU Police are constantly evaluating new equipment and I would personally say that any new tool that is evaluated and found could be useful would be of use to officers in any capacity,” Wiggins said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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