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Researchers working on marijuana breathalyzer

While driving under the influence of THC is illegal even in states like Washington that allow the use of marijuana for recreational purposes, there is currently no reliable way for police officers to determine whether or not a motorist is impaired by the metabolite. The results of roadside breath tests and standardized field sobriety tests are generally reliable because alcohol affects the human body in very predictable ways, and blood alcohol levels can be scientifically linked to degrees of impairment in casual as well as heavy drinkers. However, traces of THC linger in the blood for days or weeks after marijuana has been consumed, and habitual users can develop high tolerances to the drug.

Researchers are hoping that testing breath will yield more reliable results than testing blood. Measuring levels of psychoactive compounds in vapor is difficult due to their chemical structures, but the National Institute of Standards has reported that scientists may now have solved this problem. The findings were published in the scientific journal Forensic Chemistry.

The scientists say that focusing on vapor pressure allowed them to study compounds as they transitioned from liquids to gases. The researchers say that their work could ultimately provide manufacturers with ways to make reliable marijuana breath testing devices for police departments. However, they concede that scientists have yet to find a reliable link between THC levels in breath and impairment.

Drunk driving suspects are presumed innocent, and experienced criminal defense attorneys may object to law enforcement being issued with equipment that has not been rigorously tested and proven to be effective. Most impaired driving cases hinge on the results of toxicology tests performed by police officers, and attorneys may seek to have this scientific evidence excluded when its accuracy or reliability could be questionable.

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