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The Trouble With Creating a Cannabis Breathalyzer

As marijuana legalization expands, governments are pushing for a cannabis breathalyzer to assure that people are not driving under the influence. Unfortunately, cannabis does not behave like alcohol in the human body, so the concept of a breathalyzer has run into many obstacles.

Alcohol and the Body

When you drink alcohol, ethanol is the chemical affecting your brain. The minute the ethanol touches your mouth (or any mucous membrane), it starts to enter your bloodstream. The more you drink, the more ethanol accumulates in your blood. Since capillaries surround your lungs, the ethanol moves easily between your blood and the air you’re breathing out. Hence, the breathalyzer! Ethanol also doesn’t stay in your body for very long, 6-8 hours and it’s gone.

THC and the Body

With marijuana, the active ingredient is THC, a fat-soluble molecule. However, the marijuana plant also contains over 100+ cannabinoids that have unknown properties. To make things even more complicated, THC doesn’t just dissolve into your bloodstream. In order to have an effect, THC must act on endocannabinoid receptors, which are located in an entirely different body system. Finally, THC and other cannabinoids linger in fat tissue for up to 30 days. For heavy users, this means that they’re technically “under the influence” that entire time.

THC is Not Ethanol

Since THC and ethanol have such different chemical profiles, cannabis breathalyzers create more questions than they answer. For example, law enforcement must first ask, “What is the point of the breathalyzer?”

If the point is to see if someone is under the influence of THC, then anyone with a build-up of THC in their fatty tissue will test positive. If the point is to figure out the most recent time of use, then a breathalyzer may not be able to give an accurate result. Also, remember that THC is fat-soluble. That means that it cannot move easily from blood to lungs, which completely defeats the point of a breathalyzer.

Back to the Drawing Board

Given the chemical and physiological differences between THC and cannabinoids to ethanol, researchers may need to go back to the drawing to figure out a better way to determine just how “high” someone is after using marijuana.



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