Washington State University researchers are halting their development of a marijuana breath test for fear of backlash from the federal government.
“For this to be effective, we need to be able to test on real people,” said Nicholas Lovrich, WSU regents professor emeritus of political science. “Unfortunately, that’s just not possible right now. It’s too much risk to the university.”
Researchers hoped the breathalyzer would help officers detect tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. That would allow law enforcement to test the intoxication of drivers under the influence of marijuana.
Lovrich said the project, which began in 2010, ended amid concerns that WSU could lose federal funding under the leadership of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era guidance that allowed states to legalize marijuana without federal interference.
Lovrich said the university’s Institutional Review Board denied his proposal for continued research in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts. After Lovrich met with the university’s Office of Research Support and Operations, a senior assistant attorney general for WSU expressed concerns about the university’s liability. After that conversation, the research was put on hold.
Researchers in other departments still are working on funded projects examining research into medicinal marijuana, as well as advertising effects on youth, according to Dan Nordquist, associate vice president for the Office of Research Support and Operations.
But the breathalyzer testing relied on subjects who used marijuana recreationally.
“The science could be there, but without test subjects, we are limited,” said Peyton Nosbusch, a doctoral student in analytical chemistry.
Due to the way THC is metabolized in the body, researchers need to test subjects in an authentic setting to develop a more field-friendly breathalyzer. Some devices can detect the chemical compounds on the breath but are too large and bulky to fit into a police car, according to Nosbusch. Such devices also can take a long time to process results.
The WSU chemistry department has developed a tongue swab that can detect THC within the body. This research is only able to continue because researchers can create saliva in the lab, and add THC compounds to it, without testing on live subjects, according to Nosbusch.
“The problem with this kind of research is that real saliva is dirtier, more grimy,” said Nosbusch. “It also doesn’t account for people who are long-term users who still have THC metabolized.”
The halt had other effects: Researchers at the University of Massachusetts were using WSU’s data to develop an app for a field sobriety test for marijuana use, according to Robert Frank with the university’s marketing and communications department.
Marijuana field tests are available in the United Kingdom and Ireland, according to the BBC. However, Nosbusch emphasized that these tests are environmentally dependent and often unreliable. The tests also do not account for a variety of factors like elevated baseline THC levels in a frequent marijuana user who may have used marijuana long before operating a vehicle.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse operates a federally approved testing program at the University of Mississippi, which provides samples to other universities around the country. WSU attempted to get its own NIDA program several years ago but was denied. However, Nosbusch is skeptical of the quality of NIDA research and results.
“(The marijuana) you would be able to experiment with NIDA wouldn’t be representative of what’s available on the market,” Nosbusch said. “It’s very old-fashioned. Its THC content is not near how much you get out of marijuana you could buy.”