Catching high drivers could get easier with a new test

A Washington State University Professor is attempting to develop the marijuana equivalent of a breathalyzer which may substantially aid law enforcement in DWI stops.

Photo by Nathan Rupert (Flickr)

This article is the second in a two-part series on intoxication tests involving DWIs. You can read Part One here.

The legalization of marijuana has become a trend across the United States, with Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon decriminalizing its recreational use.  This trend has become the topic of concern for the Washington State Patrol, which has seen a twenty-five percent increase  in the number of drivers who test positive for marijuana compared to the years before its legalization.  Of the 1,362 drivers who tested positive for marijuana, 720 of those drivers had a sufficient level of marijuana in their system to allow a “drugged-driving conviction.”  This has created concern for many law enforcement agencies due to the difficulties associated with detecting marijuana levels in an individual’s system.  The Colorado Department of Transportation is expected to spend around $1 million on a “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign which kicked off on March 10, 2014.

Whatever the actual effect marijuana has on drivers, it is still illegal to drive while high on marijuana in many states, including those in which it has been legalized.

As more states are legalizing marijuana use, more research is being conducted on the impairing effects of marijuana on drivers.  Some researchers contend that driving while high on marijuana is less dangerous than driving drunk.  Many others still argue that although marijuana may be less dangerous than alcohol, it still has a negative effect on drivers’ abilities and should therefore be controlled.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has stated that marijuana use may lead to “decreased car handing performance, increased reaction times, impaired time and distance estimation, inability to maintain headway, lateral travel, subjective sleepiness, motor incoordination, and impaired sustained vigilance.”  Whatever the actual effect marijuana has on drivers, it is still illegal to drive while high on marijuana in many states, including those in which it has been legalized.

Due to many unanswered questions the testing for marijuana is much different than for alcohol.

The stopping, testing, and prosecution of an individual accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol has become a very common procedure in trial courts all throughout the nation.  Officers have multiple tests available to them to detect intoxication including roadside physical tests like the walk and turn, a breathalyzer, and a blood test.  These tests are generally reliable and are commonly used in the prosecution of individuals accused of driving drunk, but it is not the same when the intoxicant at issue is marijuana.

Although law enforcement can use the tests above when confronting an individual they suspect to be impaired, these tests’ reliability changes when the impairing substance is marijuana.  This issue with reliability is even present in urine tests because such tests may continue to detect marijuana at a time that is “well past the window of intoxication and impairment,” thus creating a question of whether or not the individual was actually intoxicated when he was driving.  This is why Professor Herbert Hill and his team at Washington State University are attempting to create a breath test that would be able to determine whether an individual is driving while high on marijuana.  It would be similar to a breathalyzer for alcohol, but will rather determine if an individual has recently consumed marijuana.

The researchers found that THC can be detected in an individual’s breath from twelve minutes to twelve hours after smoking marijuana.

The portable marijuana breath test is based on a combination of the alcohol breathalyzer and already existing tools used by United States Customs agents and airport security in order to detect drugs and explosives devices.  It is intended to be the equivalent of an alcohol breathalyzer by allowing law enforcement to detect the presence THC on an individual’s breath, although the initial instrument will not be able to give an exact level of THC in the individual’s system.  The science behind this proposed device is backed by research completed by researchers in The Netherlands and Sweden.  The researchers found that THC can be detected in an individual’s breath from twelve minutes to twelve hours after smoking marijuana.

There is no other known device or roadside test that officers may perform to determine if an individual has recently consumed marijuana. With the use of this device, law enforcement will likely be able to point to an objective test and facts when requiring an individual to submit to further testing when he is suspected of driving while intoxicated.  With more states considering legalizing marijuana use, detecting intoxicated drivers is becoming a growing concern.  Law enforcement agencies will need reliable tools and strategies to catch individuals who are driving after consuming excessive amounts of marijuana. Therefore, this breath test is a step towards effectively finding and stopping individuals who drive while high.

Davis Puryear, Former Managing Editor
About Davis Puryear, Former Managing Editor (15 Articles)
Davis Puryear served as the Managing Editor of the Campbell Law Observer during the 2014-2015 school year. In 2012, Davis graduated from the University of South Carolina with degrees in Finance and Marketing. Davis has previously interned with Hutchens Law Firm of Fayetteville and the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office. He is from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Davis graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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