Former Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman Kal Malhi, who spent four years working in the RCMP’s drug enforcement division, developed the device—named Cannabix—as a means of cracking down on Canada’s marijuana-fuelled motorists. Usually, the substance can only be detected through blood or urine tests, but Cannabix will allow officers to check suspicious drivers with just a sample of their breath at the roadside.
“It’s a very new concept that breath testing can work for drugs,” Malhi said. “It’s hard to prove when somebody’s high on drugs—the level of convictions on drugged driving is very low.”
Inspired by Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, which first experimented with the technique in 2010, he created the tool as an aid for the police to crack down on weed-riddled drivers. The original study tested the exhaled air of people who had overdosed on amphetamines, asking them to breathe into a mask for 10 minutes so that their breath could be passed through a filter. Acetic acid was then used to trap narcotic substances as the particles processed through the device, before the resultant air was analyzed using the highly specialized and reliable methods of tandem mass-spectrometry and liquid chromatography.
It was this, which Malhi read up on during a family trip to India last year, which spurred on his work. Similarly to its Swedish counterpart, Cannabix collects breath in one tube before re-testing it in a second after having been filtered. This is able to produce an immediate result—something that could entirely revolutionize convictions and road safety.
Recruiting Dr. Raj Attariwala, a nuclear medicine physician and radiologist, and Dr. Bruce Goldberger, a toxicology professor at the University of Florida, the trio have engineered Cannabix to verify whether or not marijuana has been consumed by the subject in the past two hours. Dr. Attariwala worked closely with Karolinska’s team on the creation of breath-analyzing technology, adding an experienced hand when it came to making Canada’s version of the device.
Malhi’s key motivation for the work was born out of a concern for the complacency of drugged drivers, who are scarcely reprimanded for substance abuse on the roads. “People are becoming very afraid to drink and drive nowadays because they feel that they will get caught and charged, but they’re not afraid to drug and drive because they don’t feel that law enforcement will do anything about it,” he explained.
Aiming to present the Cannabix Breathalyzer to the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority and minister of justice in the next 18 months, Malhi also suggested that it could be rolled out as a means of testing workplace weed dabblers.
In spite of the fact it was created after just six months of research and development, patents are already pending on the contraption, and its creator hopes to have it on the market in North America by the end of the year.