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Ride High, Get a DUI

The legalization of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes is a rather new phenomenon in the United States. I happen to fall on the side of at least decriminalizing it, though I fall short of advocating for its use. At least preliminarily, however, it appears that certain strains of marijuana, specifically those containing the compound “Cannibidiol,” or CBD, show great promise for treating several medical conditions. CBD, however, isn’t the compound in marijuana that gets a person “high,” that would be “Tetrahydrocannibidiol,” or THC.

As a country we tend to agree that a certain amount of alcohol in a person’s system is acceptable because at low levels it doesn’t “impair” one’s driving ability per se – this limit is generally a .08 Blood Alchohol Level, or BAC. The only way police can enforce this arbitrary line of biochemical demarcation is through technological advances such as breathalyzers and blood tests. The problem with policing DUI’s pertaining to driving “high” off marijuana is that there is no reliable test for measuring impairment. The problem is biochemical in nature because THC stays in a person’s system for weeks, if not months, after they have smoked marijuana. However, a high from marijuana doesn’t last more than 6 hours at the very most. This means that testing for the presence of THC tells us little to nothing about the level of impairment an individual experiences.

Currently, Colorado State Police are waiting optimistically for the science to catch up to policing demands. There are several devices currently in development, but their accuracy and reliability have yet to be proven. Scientists are seeking ways to test for recent ingestion of marijuana on the breath, in saliva, or even transdermally. There are several hurdles scientists are trying to overcome. First, which metabolite or compound best indicates intoxication? What level should the cutoff be? Can a device reliably ascertain a person’s level? It appears the first two questions are the most difficult to answer. Currently, the most reliable device is the Hounds Lab Pot Breathalyzer which the owners claim their device is capable of satisfying all three of the above questions. They claim they have reached the balance between “safety and fairness” in that their device tests for THC on the breath, and a positive test is only reached within a few hours after ingestion, the time a user is most impaired.

People are going to smoke marijuana whether its legal or not. Even so, society has an obligation to discourage operating a vehicle while impaired from any substance, including marijuana. Therefore, developing technology that can accurately test for this type of impairment is a necessary tool for police, and one which I predict will one day be as commonly used as the traditional alcohol breathalyzer in the near future.

-Zack Sobel