Scientists believe that a marijuana breathalyzer could be in the works

According to a new study, a device that detects the chemical in cannabis that causes its psychoactive effects may be able to serve as an early prototype of a breathalyzer-type tool for testing for marijuana.

UCLA researchers and ElectraTect, a startup at UCLA, are testing a “cannabinoid-fuel cell”. They say this provides a foundation for the development of a marijuana breath analyzer that is similar to those that test for alcohol in a person’s lungs.

In a Sept. 12 paper in Organic Letters, the laboratory device is described as able to detect THC in solution and measure its concentration. Researchers said that this technology could give a better gauge of the amount of THC in a person’s body than existing methods.

The researchers found that testing with saliva, blood, or urine can sometimes yield distorted results. This is because THC can be present in bodily fluids for several weeks after someone has smoked marijuana.

The scientists concluded that there was a need for a fair and accurate forensic tool capable to detect THC within a short time frame. This is especially true in countries and states where marijuana is legalized or decriminalized. Traditional testing can lead to prosecution or imprisonment or even loss of employment.

There have been reports of cognitive and motor impairments associated with cannabis use. Some countries, such as Canada, have established THC cutoffs for drivers based on blood levels.

UCLA designed the device to be similar to alcohol breath analyzers. The process of oxidation occurs when a sample is placed in a solution. This removes a molecule from THC and creates an electrical current that can then be measured. Researchers said that the strength of the electric current is related to the amount of THC present in the sample.

In a paper published in April 2020 by the same journal, the researchers first described the electrochemical oxidation process.

Scientists are currently working to reduce the size of the technology to make a handheld device that can be used to quickly and cheaply test for marijuana. Future devices will be able to test for THC and alcohol, according to the researchers. They suggested that breath analyzers could be connected to vehicle ignitions and can help reduce impaired driving. If the device detects THC at certain levels it will prevent a car’s starting.

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