We Need More Answers on Marijuana's Effects

NIST researchers are laying the technical groundwork for manufacturers to develop accurate devices.

I've long believed that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana and more costly to society. But this belief hasn't made me a fan of marijuana legalization. I don't use it, medicinally or recreationally, so I can't support legalization out of self-interest. What concerns me are the safety and societal consequences1 that seem certain to follow, in my opinion: industrial accidents, traffic accidents, injuries, increased absenteeism, poor student performance in schools, and more.

We've presented several webinars and published numerous articles about employers' options for their operations in states where marijuana has been legalized. Most pointed out that, at this point, we don't know how to determine impairment with marijuana use, as we do with alcohol. "The topic of 'how much is okay' is really a huge unknown, and not even experienced toxicologists can recommend an 'acceptable' level of THC. There are reasons why no impairment standards exist for marijuana that boil down to one very complicated and yet simple statement: The science isn't there yet, and it won't likely be anytime soon," DATIA Chairman-elect Jo McGuire explained in our October 2016 issue.

And so I applaud the accomplishment by National Institute of Standards and Technology scientists that may lead to a reliable marijuana breathalyzer. NIST announced in early July (if you follow our website and Twitter feed, you probably saw this story then) that they measured THC's vapor pressure, which is very difficult and had not been accomplished before.

Some companies are trying to develop marijuana breathalyzers, but testing someone's breath for marijuana-derived compounds is far more complicated than testing for alcohol, the agency reported, explaining that driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in any state but, to enforce the law, authorities need a reliable roadside test for marijuana intoxication.

NIST's article said the researchers are laying the technical groundwork for manufacturers to develop accurate devices. More research will be needed to understand how breath levels of THC correlate with blood levels and what blood levels of THC indicate someone is too impaired to drive, the agency noted. Their paper was published2 online June 27.

1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/how-does-marijuana-use-affect-school-work-social-life
2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2468170917300310

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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