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New Device to Help Police Detect Cannabis-Impaired Drivers 

cannabis-impaired drivers
Written by Alexandra Hicks

As legalization sweeps the nation, a top concern among state officials is how to detect and stop cannabis-impaired drivers.

When we think of DUI testing, what usually comes to mind are roadside sobriety evaluations and breathalyzer tests for alcohol. Despite how prevalent the use of illicit drugs may be, nothing really holds a candle to alcohol when it comes to DWI-related vehicular incidents. But as a growing number of states go against the federal government and legalize cannabis either for medical (38 states) or recreational (24 states and Washington D.C.) use, the topic how to reduce the number of stoned drivers on the road is of greater relevance.  

A police department in the Midwestern United States recently unveiled a new device that will help detect cannabis-impaired drivers. Although this technology will only be able to detect use within a certain time frame, it’s still making the headlines. Let’s take a closer look at how it all works.  

DUI testing – how it works 

The terms DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or DWI/OWI (Driving/Operating While Intoxicated), are pretty self-explanatory. It means that a person was operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Most often, these cases involve alcohol or some type of illegal substance like heroin, methamphetamine, or even cannabis. In some circumstances, even OTC medications like Nyquil and Benadryl can lead to a DUI arrest because they cause drowsiness and can negatively impact motor skills.  

While some people can handle perfectly handle driving after smoking a little bit of weed or taking some cold medication (pro tip, opt for the non-drowsy varieties), the general rule of thumb is that you should be sober and clearheaded when behind the wheel of car – and never drive after drinking alcohol or using any other heavy substance. Afterall, driving is a huge responsibility. It’s not just your own life you hold in your hands, but those of your passengers as well as other drivers and pedestrians on the road. 

When a person is pulled over and suspected of driving under the influence, the officer will first begin conducting field sobriety testing. “Field Sobriety Tests” (commonly shortened to FSTs) consist of several roadside evaluations such as the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (HGN), the Walk and Turn test (WAT), and the One Leg Stand test (OLS), during which the officer gauges a suspect’s balance, coordination, ability to follow instructions, overall behavior, and other physiological and psychological responses that would indicate the person is driving under the influence.  

If a person fails these tests, then the suspect would be subjected to a breathalyzer test. The driver blows into a handheld device that measures the concentration of alcohol in their lungs to determine an approximate amount of alcohol that is in their blood. If the person is for some reason unable to perform a breathalyzer test, due to illness or injury of some sort, then they will have to do a blood test to measure their blood alcohol content (BAC). Anything over 0.08 percent is beyond the legal limit and will result in a DWI charge.  

A DUI can result in hefty fines, loss of driving privileges, and even jail time

Because breathlyzers only work for alcohol, officers must rely on field sobriety tests and testing of bodily fluids to determine whether a person is driving under the influence of any other substance. While blood and urine testing might be accurate for some drugs, it’s not for cannabis because it stays in the system much longer than other illicit substances. As the legal market continues to grow, government officials continue searching for effective ways to find and cite stoned drivers.  

Officers in the US begin “cannabis roadside impairment” testing  

Earlier this month, Minnesota-based newspaper the Star Tribune reported that officers will begin conducting roadside sobriety testing to detect and arrest cannabis-impaired drivers. Within the next few weeks, they will begin utilizing a new saliva-based test that will gauge the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their systems.

This pilot project with sort through several different testing devices to see which are most accurate, and plan to narrow it down to only two that will be used in the field. Because driving under the influence of cannabis is illegal, regardless of whether it’s prohibited in the state or not, finding ways to stop stoned driving is a requirement of their new recreational cannabis program. It’s important to note that during this trial period, results from these tests will not be admissible in court.  

“I would expect that by this time next month, the units will be in the field and will be in use,” said Mike Houston, director of Minnesota’s Office of Traffic Safety. “Other states that have legalized cannabis have used these test methods with their law enforcement to find probable cause. 

Additionally, the state will start utilizing what’s known as drug recognition experts (DREs) who will be responsible for identifying drivers who might be operating a vehicle while high. So far, Minnesota has more than 300 DREs in employment, with plans to increase those numbers by early 2025. 

“Our goal is to put enough DREs on the road where a street cop, anywhere in the state of Minnesota, within 20 or 30 minutes … can either have a DRE on scene or at the very least have a phone consultation,” Hanson explained. “We’re being very proactive as we come up on legalization and when the dispensaries will actually open.” 

What’s the point?

Why are so many resources going towards stopping stoned drivers?

It’s up for debate whether cannabis intoxication even has that much of an effect on driving at all. Although driving stoned can sometimes affect reaction times and peripheral vision, people typically compensate for these shortcomings by driving more carefully. That being said, some people really just do not drive well after using cannabis products and they should avoid doing it. What’s nice about these situations, is that people are can’t drive stoned usually avoid doing it anyway because it’s unpleasant and causes anxiety. 

It’s important to note that I’m not advocating for stoned driving or encouraging anyone to smoke pot and hop in the driver’s seat. However, based on years of anecdotal evidence, as well as recent studies and other forms of data on the subject, it’s safe to assume that it’s less dangerous to drive while under the influence of cannabis, rather than alcohol, heroin, or pretty much any other intoxicating substance.

Which begs the question, why is so much money and effort being put into cannabis-related sobriety testing? And what about tests geared specifically towards other drugs? How many times have we seen people passed out behind the wheel of a car after a heroin binge? Or a methed-out driver making crazy maneuvers and terrifying everyone around with their road rage? Why are we so focused on stopping drivers who smoke pot rather than drivers who are using much more dangerous substances?

Maybe because it’s easier to make arrests, and thus, more profitable for the state? Since a larger percentage of the population uses cannabis products as opposed to harder drugs, and it can be easier for a police officer to detect the presence of marijuana than it would be other substances. It seems almost like a fish-in-the-barrel type of situation; as unfair as that ultimately is.  

Final thoughts  

Even though cannabis-impaired drivers aren’t the biggest threat to our safety on the road, ideally, drivers should be as sober as possible. And since such a large number of Americans enjoy marijuana on a regular basis, it should come as no surprise that technology and regulations are changing to keep up with the evolving market and culture.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.