Amanda Stern   |   October 28, 2022

Cannabis Impairment Detection: Analyzers, Apps, and Algorithms

A glimpse into current cannabis impairment detection technologies.
Amanda is a freelance writer and cannabis industry worker living in Southern Colorado.

Technology that analyzes a THC consumer’s current impairment level in real-time has notoriously eluded law enforcement, HR departments, and the medical community. Those times may end with an array of companies offering solutions and alternatives for a so-called THC breathalyzer.

Traditionally, tests that detect THC levels in a consumer only reflect that they had consumed delta-nine tetrahydrocannabinol at some point. This certainly does not determine whether or not the consumer in question is currently impaired by cannabis. These testing methods are also somewhat invasive, requiring blood, urine, saliva, or hair samples from the subject, often taking several days, if not longer, to obtain results from a lab.

Another problem this need presents is that THC impairment is not reflected in a baseline number like the limit imposed on alcohol blood levels of .08. Once consumed, THC reacts differently in everyone, so using a baseline number is out the window.

A regular adult medical consumer may have no problem handling higher levels daily, showing no intoxication or impairment, versus a weekend warrior who likes to relax on a Saturday with a bit of recreational use and who shows impairment with a much lighter dosage. Either way, safety is the bottom line.

Cannabis Intoxication Detection via Smartphone

Given the amount of data smartphones and devices gather about us, it’s not so hard to fathom the eventuality of a device’s ability to determine if the user is dealing with cannabis impairment or not.

A team of researchers from Steven’s Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Rutgers have created a smartphone application to detect binge drinking that can be used similarly to detect cannabis intoxication. Collecting movement via GPS, light, noise, activity levels, date, and time of day, amongst a myriad of other collected data points, AI technology has been developed and used in a study that can predict cannabis intoxication with 90% accuracy in a natural environment.

In an effort to find a method to intervene in human behavior before an impaired individual can put themselves or others in harm’s way, the team “used low burden methods (sensor data, time of day and day of week) to detect intoxication in daily life and found that the feasibility of using phone sensor features to detect subjective cannabis intoxication is strong” according to a press release from Rutgers.

Health Scanners to Determine Cannabis Impairment

Straight from the pages of a sci-fi novel comes the next solution to detecting THC impairment, a non-invasive body scan. Much like a metal detector, this touchless technology employs a series of multi-spectral cameras and sensors to scan the subject, taking a detailed look inside the body and the functionality of its systems.

Boasting speed and flexibility, Canadian company Predictmedix’s health scanner also “sees” symptoms of infectious disease and mental illness far beyond the tell-tale signs of diminished blood flow to the brain as seen in an individual impaired by cannabis or alcohol.

As reported in a previous CannabisTech article, clinical trials for impairment detection and data are currently being worked on.

Handheld Brain Scanners

Another team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital has also been using a scanner. Their work shows that functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, imaging technology measures brain activation patterns correlating with THC impairment, representing a novel direction for detecting and distinguishing between impairment and mild intoxication in the field.

Neuropsychopharmacology has reported that the procedure could significantly improve highway and workplace safety. Using simple one size fits all hat, or headgear-type recording units that transmit data wirelessly to the test administrator’s laptop offers objective, reliable results with minimum set-up time. There could be advantages to having this technology created to be a compact, lightweight, battery-powered fNIRS device.

Inhale deeply; the THC Breathalyzer is Coming

Professor Neil Garg, along with Dr. Eva Darzi, CEO of ElectraTect, Inc., heads a team of researchers at UCLA who, in 2020, developed the chemistry to make a breathalyzer test for cannabis. They have developed a device in their lab that can detect the presence and concentration of THC in a solution. Work is now being done to downsize the device in hopes it can be used as a commercial handheld THC breath analyzer.

The team discovered that removing a hydrogen molecule from the larger THC molecule caused it to change color noticeably. Known as oxidation, this is similar to how an alcohol breathalyzer works. Detailed in a newly released paper, this laboratory-scale THC-powered fuel cell marks the first time that THC has been used to power a fuel cell sensor.

Coming into contact with an anode, or negatively charged electrode, THC oxidizes into THCQ, sending electrons across the H-shaped glass chamber to the other side, where it comes into contact with cathodes or positively charged electrodes. This generates an electrical current. The higher the concentration of THC molecules, the stronger the current.

Researchers expect that this simple, inexpensive technology, once perfected, can be scaled up for economical mass production, along with an additional reduction in equipment size so it could be used as a handheld device or interlock system, preventing a vehicle from starting if THC is present.

It might still be a few years out

As the push for nationwide marijuana legalization continues and more states are coming on board, the need for fast and accurate on-the-spot cannabis impairment detection has increased exponentially. Various solutions are on the table, and with a little fine-tuning, we could see these used by law enforcement and businesses in a relatively short time.

 

Comments

Join our community of 20,000+ Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter!


Follow us on Social: