Driving under the influence is illegal. That refers to marijuana use and alcohol use. But there have been problems enforcing marijuana violations due to a lack of proper testing.

Now scientists have developed breathalyzers to detect THC in drivers. Read on to find out what you need to know.

What are the New Breathalyzers to Detect THC in Drivers?

The breathalyzers that detect THC in drivers were developed by scientists at the Phoenix-based company ElectraTect. They detect the psychoactive component in cannabis to determine if people are driving impaired.

The increased legalization of marijuana has made it more necessary for breathalyzers that detect THC to be utilized. The drug is currently legal in some form in all but three states.

ElectraTect, which was founded in 2020 by CEO Even Darzi and co-founder Neil K. Garg, focuses on the detection of marijuana.

“I think especially in states where it’s legalized, we do need a device that can detect whether someone is impaired,” said research assistant for ElectraTect Kayla Merker.

History of the New Breathalyzers That Detect THC in Drivers

Garg and Darzi had been working together in the science field before founding their company. They would reach out to the public to explain how science was useful in everyday life. They would host lectures to explain how fundamental chemical discoveries play a role in many useful technologies.

One of the discoveries Garg and Darzi would talk about was the breathalyzer. This prompted one audience member to ask why breathalyzers to detect THC had not yet been invented. The question sent the men back to the lab to do some investigating.

But they faced challenges in moving forward. For one, they had difficulty obtaining a Drug Enforcement Administration license to conduct the research. A DEA license was necessary considering marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. And getting one took a year of filling out paperwork, making phone calls, writing and answering emails, and getting through security.

Next, they had to figure out how to find the detection chemistry that could be converted into a handheld device.

“If we look at the molecular structure of alcohol versus THC, alcohol has two carbons and oxygen. What that little Breathalyzer is doing is taking away these two little hydrogens in a process called oxidation. If you want to do that on THC, there are a lot more places where that can happen. There’s a much more complicated structure,” Darzy explained.

Darzi published a paper about breathalyzers to detect THC in drivers. It generated interest from donors and investors allowing them to launch ElectraTect. The company currently has six full-time employees. They operate in an office/laboratory space in the downtown ASU Phoenix campus.

Testing is Limited

Friendly hospital phlebotomist collecting blood sample from patient in lab. Preparation for blood test by female doctor medical uniform on the table in white bright room

Up until now, marijuana testing has been limited. It takes days to detect marijuana in someone’s system. It makes it nearly impossible for officers to test drivers on the spot.

Drivers are often pulled over for erratic driving. If the officer suspects impairment, they may be arrested and fined. They may even lose their jobs.

Breathalyzers to detect THC in drivers would present a fair system for testing.

Thomas Marcotte, co-director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego has been conducting cannabis clinical trials for over two decades. He has pointed out some issues that affect the ability to detect cannabis use in drivers.

“THC concentrations in blood spike very quickly and then it very quickly distributes to other parts of the body. So within an hour, the amount of THC detectable in the blood is very low. A person can still be impaired with these low blood concentrations; it is what is happening in the brain, not the blood,” he points out.

He explains that people that use marijuana regularly can have low levels of THC in their blood days after use. When you consider the hours it takes to test the blood, a low concentration will be detected. It will not reveal when the person last used cannabis.

Furthermore, unlike alcohol, there is no biological method to determine the THC legal limit that defines when a person is impaired.

“With respect to driving, at this point, the best approach is for law enforcement to take into consideration the ‘totality of the evidence’- driving behavior, driver interviews, and field sobriety tests,” he explains.

THC on the Breath

Current technology detects marijuana through blood and urine. It has not been developed enough to detect THC on the breath. But ElectraTect is focusing on something called a “peak impairment window”.

The peak impairment window refers to three to six hours after usage. The company is focusing on the window to develop their breathalyzers to detect THC technology.  

The Need for Breathalyzers to Detect THC in Drivers

Image of a auto accident involving two cars.

Breathalyzers to detect THC in drivers will be meeting a very real need in society. Forbes, who joined the company in 2021, points out the increase in marijuana-related driving fatalities.

Madeline Meier, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, who has researched the effects of cannabis on mental and physical health, points out that breathalyzers that detect THC can reduce accidents and help drivers.

“The product is potentially very important. Now that medical and nonmedical cannabis use is legal in Canada and many states in the U.S., it is critical to have accurate measures for recent cannabis use. Accurate measures could, for example, aid in exonerating drivers who are not impaired but show a positive blood test because they used cannabis yesterday,” she points out.

ElectraTect stated that they would first be making their breathalyzers to detect THC available for drivers so they can self-test before getting behind the wheel.

“We don’t want to discourage people from using cannabis products to treat their pain because they’re worried they might lose their job. We also want to know what level of THC impairment is unsafe to drive or operate heavy machinery. It’s very likely there’s some low dose that can give you some pain relief, but it’s not going to exceed that threshold,” Darzi said.