A newly-developed breath test may provide assistance in the screening of drivers or possibly employees looking for recent use of marijuana either medical use or recreational use.
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The test, which detects the presence of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana, in the breath of those who used the substance within 30 minutes to 2.5 hours prior was used during a study of 25 adult long-term or occasional smokers. "The whole issue of drugged driving is key right now," reported the senior author Marilyn A. Huestis, Ph.D., 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, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.
However, Dr. Huestis noted that more work needs to be undertaken on the study which was published online in Clinical Chemistry. "We have a lot of science to develop before this type of test can end up by the roadside," she pointed out. "We need to find out about how drugs get into breath, how long they're in there, and then we have to develop the methods that could then be used in the field. It's a ways off, but it's a big step forward."
Until now, chemical tests on blood seemed to be the only reliable method for determining the actual level of THC in a person's body. Urine tests cannot show whether or not a person had recently used marijuana. Studies have shown that depending on quantity and strength, a single dose of THC can produce metabolites that last for at least 12 days in urine, long after the psychoactive effects of the substance have diminished. However, the key is not knowing the exact level of THC found in a driver's bloodstream. The key is whether or not the driver was impaired by the drug to the point of being incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle.
More teens are now driving while high, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health and reported by Medscape Medical News. A different study indicated that drivers who consumed cannabis within three hours of driving were twice as likely to cause a serious road accident as those who did not use the substance. However, Wayne Hall, Ph.D., from the University of Queensland in Australia, noted in an editorial opinion regarding the latter study that public health education is not enough to deter cannabis users from driving. "They will also need to be persuaded that they are at risk of their cannabis use being detected," he wrote.
Roadside saliva testing has been used in Europe and Australia and has been approved in several states in the United States, according to Dr. Huestis because THC can be detected for up to 48 hours in oral fluid. However, detection of THC in saliva may not necessarily coincide with any impairment while a person is operating a motor vehicle.
Thus, Dr. Huestis suggested that "breath may offer an alternative matrix for testing for recent driving under the influence of cannabis, but is limited to a short detection window." Researchers noted that the driving impairment window extends past the 30 minutes to two hour breath detection window. "I think oral testing is ready for prime time now, and that's a good thing. With breath testing, we're just starting," Dr. Huestis said. "It's realistic to use for the workplace, for accident investigation."
Dr. Huestis reported that NIDA investigators are planning to conduct further studies, funded by NIDA's Intramural Research Program, into issues regarding marijuana impairment and they are currently assessing whether or not cocaine use can be detected by breath tests. "A breath test is clearly a distance away, but I think it could be a good tool. For now, oral testing is available and ready. And it would go a long way towards identifying problematic drugged driving," she added.
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