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U.S. federal government invests nearly $1.8 million to track how cannabis compounds change in a person’s breath over time

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“Currently, it is impossible to draw a correlation between driving impairment and [THC] concentration in blood, which is the most reliable matrix with which to determine recent cannabis use”

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The U.S. federal government is investing more money into creating roadside testing methods capable of detecting recent cannabis use.

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The National Institute of Science and Technology has posted a notice for assistance on a study that would test breath and blood samples for cannabinoids, reports Marijuana Moment.

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The agency is operating with a budget of more than US$1.4 million (about $1.8 million) for the study.

“Cannabis induces executive function deficits that make drivers more likely to be involved in crashes than unimpaired drivers, yet, to date, there is no means to chemically detect impairment at the roadside,” notes a funding summary for the study.

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“Currently, it is impossible to draw a correlation between driving impairment and [THC] concentration in blood, which is the most reliable matrix with which to determine recent cannabis use,” it adds.

The funding is part of a larger package announced by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) last year. More than US$14 million ($17.9 million) was allocated to support 30 forensic science research and development projects.

“With these awards, NIJ continues its dedication to strengthening the criminal justice system through forensic science research and development,” Lucas Zarwell, director of NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, said when that funding was announced.

“We appreciate all the innovative and dedicated scientists who are committed to increasing our understanding of, or producing useful technologies for, the forensic sciences,” Zarwell noted at the time.

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The upcoming study, Breath Measurements of Acute Cannabis Elimination, or BACE, proposes collecting breath samples between short intervals to track how cannabis compounds change in a person’s breath over time.

“We will investigate the feasibility of a two-point measurement that could be implemented at the roadside. We propose to collect breath samples from occasional and frequent cannabis users at 10-minute intervals during acute cannabis elimination, similar to the previous work, and during periods of abstinence, which has not been examined,” the funding award explains.

Last month, the Northwest Territories RCMP deployed a new tool designed to determine if drivers are over the legal limit for cannabis.

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The RCMP report the devices are used to take an oral fluid sample, can be completed in about 15 minutes and are similar to roadside alcohol tests.

Under the federal Cannabis Act, testing at or over two nanograms (ng), but under 5 ng, of THC per millilitre (ml) of blood, is a summary conviction offence punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000. Drivers who test over 5 ng of THC per ml of blood face minimum penalties of $1,000 fine for a first offence, 30 days imprisonment for a second offence and 120 days imprisonment for a third offence.

“In the N.W.T., there is zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs for drivers 21 and under, novice drivers and some commercial vehicle drivers,” notes the Northwest Territories Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

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A study published earlier this year in JAMA Psychiatry found that regular cannabis consumers taking part in simulated driving testing saw reduced skills behind the wheel, but “indistinguishable” performance at 4.5 hours compared to those taking a placebo.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital proposed another non-invasive measure for detecting cannabis impairment earlier this year by using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which measures brain patterns, and correlating the readings to THC impairment.

Published in Neuropsychopharmacology, the study found that those who consumed cannabis showed higher levels of neural activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain when compared to those given a placebo.

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“Our research represents a novel direction for impairment testing in the field,” said lead author Jodi Gilman, associate professor at Harvard University and an investigator in the Center for Addiction Medicine.

“Our goal was to determine if cannabis impairment could be detected from activity of the brain on an individual level. This is a critical issue because a breathalyzer-type of approach will not work for detecting cannabis impairment, which makes it very difficult to objectively assess impairment from THC during a traffic stop,” Gilman pointed out.

Yet another 2022 study, this time out of Australia, found that “higher blood THC concentrations were only weakly associated with increased impairment in occasional cannabis users, while no significant relationship was detected in regular cannabis users.”

“This suggests that blood and oral fluid THC concentrations are relatively poor indicators of cannabis-THC-induced impairment,” the study authors concluded.

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