The marijuana industry received some substantial news in March with bi-partisan support in both chambers of Congress that would facilitate growth for the industry by loosening federal marijuana laws. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) with co-sponsor Rep. Don Young (R-AK) filed the House version of the CARERS Act (short for Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States) and six additional House members co-sponsoring the bill have now joined them. The Senate version, filed by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) earlier in the month has added two additional senators as co-sponsors. The CARERS Act aims to resolve several problematic regulations with marijuana, including allowing interstate commerce, opening the banking system to marijuana dispensaries, permitting the Veterans Administration to recommend medical marijuana to vets, rescheduling marijuana to Schedule 2, allowing states to legalize marijuana for medical use without federal interference and eliminate barriers to medical marijuana research. If passed into law, it will benefit a wide array of marijuana companies, including cannabinoid-based drug developers like GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: GWPH), Insys Therapeutics (NASDAQ: INSY) and InMed Pharmaceuticals (OTCQB: IMLFF)(CSE: IN).
It will also heighten awareness on the ever-controversial topic of driving under the influence of marijuana, as the balance of states where marijuana is legal for either medicinal or recreational use will likely soon tip to the majority of the country. This is a growing concern as epidemiology studies show that, after alcohol, marijuana is the most frequently detected psychoactive substance among driving populations.
As it stands now, police are left to rely primarily upon blood, urine and, in some cases, saliva tests, which can deliver false positives, be costly and take days for results. There are new technologies nearing completion of development to address this issue, such as the hand-held Cannabix Marijuana Breathalyzer by Cannabix Technologies (OTC: BLOZF)(CSE: BLO), that will give law enforcement a roadside tool to determine presence of THC (or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the component in marijuana primarily responsible for the psychological effects) via an easy to administer breath test.
The battle over what metrics should be used to determine driving under the influence of marijuana continues to escalate. It’s not just a U.S. debate; it’s worldwide, including a current hot button issue in Australia where citizens are upset over the use of saliva tests in determining THC levels with respect to breaking driving laws.
I Drive Better When High. No You Don’t.
There are certainly some people that naively contest that marijuana isn’t dangerous to drivers or that they drive better when high. This is a moot point and argument that U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration generally doesn’t agree with, even though the agency does concede that some drivers can temporarily improve performance by overcompensating for self-perceived impairment. According to the NHTSA website, “Marijuana has been shown to impair performance on driving simulator tasks and on open and closed driving courses for up to approximately 3 hours.” Effects include decreased car handling performance, increased reaction times, impaired time and distance estimation and more. A study led by Mark Asbridge, PhD, from Dalhousie University showed that drivers who consume cannabis within three hours prior to driving are almost twice as likely to cause a serious car accident.
While most experts are aware that there are impairing effects, the problem is that the effects can vary depending on individuals, especially depending on frequency of marijuana use. Even AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) warns that people taking Marinol® (dronabinol), the biotech’s synthetic delta-9-THC used as an appetite stimulate in AIDS patients, should not drive until it is established they can do so safely.
Saliva or Breathalyzer? Breathalyzer.
Drugged driving is a major problem that is likely going to be exacerbated by more availability as states decriminalizing marijuana. According to Marilyn A. Huestis, PhD, chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the Intramural Research Program at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, the Office of National Control Policy has made the reduction of drugged driving 1 of their top 3 initiatives for the last several years. In fairness, the answer is not a simple one because of the way the body metabolizes marijuana. Blood and urine tests can detect THC or its metabolites going back days or weeks, which means that it doesn’t necessarily imply the driver was high recently.
Saliva tests have been around for many years and are approved for use in Europe, Australia and 14 U.S. states for drug detection, but as mentioned, they remain a topic of debate over accuracy. For another recent example, consider that Vermont last month was considering adding saliva tests to the tool chest of police officers to evaluate for impaired drivers, but ultimately decided to postpone a decision. The proposal had Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, questioning the rationale. Gilbert pointed out that Vermont had ruled out saliva testing a year earlier, calling it unreliable, but had it back on the agenda again only a year later. Rep. Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester) explained after the decision to postpone that the situation is “involved” and “[Vermont lawmakers] owe it to the public to do it right the first time.” The state is concerned about the growing number of accidents where marijuana was evident. Marijuana was evident in drivers in 9 of 44 fatal highway crashes in Vermont in 2014, compared to only 6 with evidence of alcohol use.
It would seem by the lack of mainstream adoption of saliva tests over the years that Vermont is not alone in moving slowly to make a decision to employ the technology, which Rep. Brennan says costs about $5,000 apiece. Dr. Huestis points out in an interview with Medscape Medical News, “THC can be detected for up to 48 hours in oral fluid. This means its detection may not coincide with impairment.”
Dr. Huestis went on to say, “Everyone would love it if we could have a breath test like we have for alcohol.”
That makes sense as a device such as the Cannabix Marijuana Breathalyzer would seem a natural fit for police officers who are very well versed in the procedure of traditional breathalyzers to test for blood alcohol content and the protocol to follow through with additional testing that is used for prosecution.
Cannabix is moving fluidly through the development of it marijuana breathalyzer with an alpha prototype completed for internal testing and enhancements to optimize THC detection levels, weather proofing, calibration methods and other features in preparation for the beta version. Initially, the Cannabix Marijuana Breathalyzer is a qualitative assay, meaning that it provides a “yes or no” answer to detection of THC within the past two hours. This is groundbreaking as the first device to specifically measure for THC within the parameters that are generally accepted as a time of impairment following marijuana use. Subsequent to a positive THC reading, additional tests, albeit a Drug Recognition Expert evaluation and/or blood or urine test, can then be performed to substantiate a DUI conviction. While the main focus of media seems to be on the law enforcement application to keep highways safe, Cannabix also sees value for its breathalyzer in the workplace where employers need to ensure a safe environment as mentioned in this video showing the alpha prototype.
Cannabix is developing a beta version, which will be targeted for external testing by various independent agencies. Cannabix is ramping up its business development activities, recently meeting with State of Colorado officials and adding Rocco Iannapollo as an advisor. Mr. Iannapollo is an expert in substance abuse programs and has extensive experience working with Fortune 50 companies, supplier, employer and DOT compliance policies and strategies. Mr. Iannapollo is a member of the Substance Abuse Program Administrator’s Association (SAPAA), the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA), as well as a speaker and regular contributor to the International Forum for Drug and Alcohol Testing (IFDAT).
Coming Soon to a Roadside Near You
Advanced roadside testing for marijuana is coming, make no mistakes about it. It’s just a matter of when, not if. It is in the best interest of public safety, as well as protecting the rights of those that have done nothing wrong that shouldn’t face possible convictions based upon false positive readings. There certainly needs to be more testing to give regulators a stronger foundation for putting laws into effect that can’t be vehemently contested, and that will come as well. It looks like the government is getting on board at the federal level to remove some obstacles that have been adding to the wrangling, which is nothing but good against the backdrop of momentum growing in public acceptance of legal marijuana. Advancements in any industry addressing drugged driving will likely be received with welcome arms, saliva testing is going to have to provide a compelling answer to questions about accuracy and ease of use. Moreover, familiarity breeds content, and there is no denying the similarity of the Cannabix device to existing breathalyzers that have been used for decades, which would seem to further support a wide adoption should the beta phase prove to be a success.
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