The Columbian / Associated Press

WSU scientists developing Breathalyzer-type pot test

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has uttered the phrase, the traffic safety commission adopted it as a slogan, and in some circles it’s reached catchphrase status: “Drive high and get a DUI.”

But the reality is, it can be difficult to determine if the person behind the wheel is driving while under the influence of marijuana.

A group of scientists at Washington State University is hoping to change that. A team is in the midst of developing a mobile test to help identify stoned drivers.

“Anyone taking on a new approach that could potentially reduce the number of impaired drivers on the road is very exciting,” said Lt. Rob Sharpe, the impaired-driving section commander with the Washington State Patrol. “If it makes it easier to detect, but it’s also reliable and the public can have faith they can be treated fairly … that’s a good thing.”

But in the next breath, Sharpe warned, “There are still a lot of questions to be answered.”

Bill Siems, a research professor at Washington State University, is one of the people tasked with trying to answer some of those questions.

One of the challenges is the active component of marijuana, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is not as volatile as alcohol and can be more difficult to identify.

The time frame is also different. A drunk driver is feeling the effects of recently consumed alcohol; a person could have THC in their system from several hours or days prior and no longer be feeling the effects.

The goal at Washington State University is to create a mobile test, similar to one using a Breathalyzer to measure blood-alcohol content, that officers could use in the field.

The measure legalizing marijuana determined 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood is when a driver is considered impaired.

But as Sharpe pointed out, there have been decades of research to show that at 0.08 blood-alcohol content, every driver is impaired.

Although the team of scientists has a ways to go, Siems said initial testing is encouraging.

The team has moved to the phase of testing volunteers. And yes, Siems said, most of them are college students.

Part of the science the team is relying on is a similar technique that currently exists to, say, swipe luggage at the airport to look for explosives.

“They use ion mobility spectrometer. It works by picking up little particles of explosives,” Siems said.

A lot of the work is trying to “adapt an existing technology to a new problem.”

The device is not expected to generate courtroom dates, but instead to be a tool to give law enforcement the ability to quickly detect whether marijuana or other drugs are in the bloodstream.

Sharpe, with the Washington State Patrol, said there has been a slight uptick in the number of drivers testing positive in toxicology reports since the legalization of marijuana.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, pushed the Legislature this session to carve out $850,000 for the team of scientists to use for research.

It’s exciting, Rivers said, to think Washington state could be the first to develop such a tool that could ultimately be used nationwide.

“We’ll have something tangible that is going to inform the rest of the scientific discourse surrounding the research in the states, and it’s powerful … and I think it’s what the voters expected when they legalized marijuana,” Rivers said.