Washington: Breath Test For Marijuana Coming Within A Year, Researchers Say
By Steve Elliott
When Washington voters approved I-502, the ballot initiative which legalized recreational marijuana in the state, most of them didn't think the DUI provision in the language wouldn't be a big deal; after all, they voted for it anyway. Those who warned about the unscientific 5 nanogram per milliliter cutoff point for THC -- a "bright line" based on numbers rather than actual impairment -- now have more reason than ever to worry, as a "breath test" is expected in the state within a year.
Researchers at Washington State University said they're about a year away from having a portable breath test that police can use to detect if someone recently used cannabis, reports Melissa Santos at the Tacoma News Tribune. Notice I said "recently used cannabis," not "impaired by cannabis"? That's because the test will reveal nothing about impairment -- but sadly, it will be used to charge people for exactly that.
Herbert Hill, a WSU chemistry professor working on the project, said his team has completed the first round of testing of the cannabis breathalyzer and has made some improvements. A second round of testing is about to begin, and Hill said police should have the device to use in the field sometime in 2016.
“For it to be used to help the arresting officer make a decision I hope is about a year away,” Hill said on Tuesday.
Hill updated state lawmakers on the breath test project at a Thursday meeting of the Senate Law & Justice Committee. Committee chairman Sen. Mike Padden said on Tuesday that officials are interested in tools that could help officers arrest drivers for impaired driving.
Hill admitted that "right now" the test determines only whether delta-9 THC is present in someone’s system, and not what level is in their blood. Out of 30 tries when the test was used on someone who had recently used cannabis, it detected THC only about half the time, Hill said.
Hill claimed the test turned up only one false positive during the trials. "We don't want to accuse somebody of smoking marijuana when they didn't," he claimed.
Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that it really could accurately detect the amount the nanograms per mililiter ofTHC in your blood by measuring your breath. Even Dr. Hill, when questioned about this in these hearings, had to admit there's no scientific evidence that would show that this number was a measurement of impairment.
Police would still need to get a warrant and draw a person's blood to see if they meet the 5 ng/ml threshold for "impairment" under Washington's laughable marijuana laws, but they say a breathalyzer test could be more accurate than the field sobriety tests officers use now, according to Padden.
“This would be a more accurate test for them to determine whether someone is impaired, and combined with other evidence, whether they need to make an arrest,” said Padden, R-Spokane Valley.
Initiative 502, which voters approved in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana use, said drivers are considered impaired if they test positive for at least 5 nanograms of delta-9 THC per milliliter of blood.