New smartphone app aims to deter cannabis-impaired driving

With little evidence backing the accuracy of roadside toxicology devices, experts are turning to iPhones to combat intoxicated driving

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      Not sure if you’re too high to drive? There’s an app for that.

      For $5.49 CAD, cannabis users can download software right to their smartphone to measure impairment.

      The app called Druid—an acronym for “driving under the influence of drugs”—is designed to detect cognitive and behavioral deviations caused by a variety of substances, including weed. With a few taps and swipes, the program takes users through four arcade-style levels aimed to test decision making, reaction time, object tracking, and balance.

      Developed by Michael Milburn, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the self-assessment tool aims to help drivers make educated decisions before hopping behind the wheel.

      How it works

      The five-minute test is accessible from a phone or tablet and requires users to complete four tasks to determine a level of impairment.

      The app has three modes: “practice”, “baseline”, and “test”. Although the software mimics a simple, but tough, video game, users can’t technically fail the levels, but do need to set a baseline sober score, first. Users are encouraged to play around with the practice mode a few times before taking a stab at a sober score, which is calculated from the most recent ten scores achieved on baseline mode.

      Once a sober score has been calculated, users can whip out their phone post-blaze and test their stoned results against their standard baseline.

      Sound simple enough? Not quite. Druid measures every move, from the shake and wobble of the device during a balancing level to the user’s ability to follow complicated instructions—all of which are meant to emulate the demands of operating a motor vehicle.

      The website also suggests users take the test in an environment with natural distractions, like other people and background noise, to simulate driving conditions.

      Until the driver scores within approximately five percent of their sober baseline, the app urges users to find another mode of transportation.

      Druid’s official website—which also provides users with educational resources on substance-impaired driving—makes it very clear that these test scores aren’t currently a legal defense in court, should the driver get arrested.


      The issue with current detection devices

      In light of the federal legalization of adult-use cannabis, Canadian policy makers and law enforcement are scrambling to update the rules around drug-impaired driving.  

      The Dräger DrugTest 5000—an oral fluid detection kit—received an official green light from Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould last week (August 28). The device measure’s the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in a saliva sample collected from a driver by either a police officer or a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). This method of detection has come under fire for the lack of scientific evidence linking cannabinoid levels to impairment.

      “The bottom line is that all of these devices don’t have any reflection on the level of impairment at all when it comes to the subject of the test,” says Sarah Leamon, a Vancouver lawyer specializing in cannabis, in an interview with the Georgia Straight last month.

      “THC is stored in fat cells long after the effects have worn off. It is not metabolized through the body in a consistent rate and there really is no formula for us to determine how it moves through every human body.”

      Along with a new device, complimentary laws, which dictate the amount of cannabis Canadians are permitted to consume before driving, passed in June. Once Bill C-46—companion legislation to the Cannabis Act that stipulates new rules for impaired driving— received royal assent, the federal government set new per se limits for a driver’s THC content, including a new set of penalties.

      According to Bill C-46, drivers caught with between two and five nanograms of THC per mL of blood will face up to a $1000 fine. Drivers who exceed five nanograms, or above 2.5 nanograms with a blood alcohol concentration above 50 mg per 100 mL, can be slapped with a criminal charge that carries jail time for repeat offenders.

      Unlike alcohol, which has substantial scientific evidence linking consumption amounts to impairment, experts say the per se limits for weed don’t necessarily reflect a driver’s cognitive and behavioral functionality—especially when it comes to regular consumers.

      A revolution in sobriety testing

      Druid, while not specific to weed, is just one app in a new generation of impairment tests that move away from chemical analysis. These apps effectively place a DRE directly in a consumer’s pocket and aim to address some of the issues arising from the debate around roadside toxicology devices for cannabis.

      Dr. Hariet de Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and doctoral student Elisa Pabon also created a prototype aptly called: “Am I Stoned?” The software, much like Druid, takes users through several levels of speed-tapping and memory games to gauge a sober baseline against an intoxicated performance.

      Currently, there are also a handful of apps on the market that focus specifically on alcohol consumption and help driver’s avoid impaired driving by calculating approximate blood alcohol levels, mimic field sobriety tests, and work in conjunction with local rideshare programs.

      This self-assessment approach wouldn’t just apply to alcohol and drug consumption, either. Theoretically, these apps can be used to detect if a driver is too tired, too stressed, or mentally unfit to drive—effectively moving away from a substance impairment test and towards a driver suitability test.

      AM I STONED?

      Moving forward

      While none of these apps have been endorsed by Canadian government agencies, Druid has been promoted by the North American non-profit cannabis advocacy group, NORML. The app is being tested in a National Institute of Health-funded study at the Brown University medical school, and by research teams at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and Washington State University.

      Researchers are using Druid to look at the effects of different strains on a driver’s motor skills and cognitive abilities, as well as the devices ability to successfully detect intoxication.

      Leamon, and many other legal voices in the cannabis space, say the toxicology devices that have been approved for cannabis aren’t likely to reduce the instances of impaired driving, rather they are calling for more consumer education.

      Laywer and trained DRE Sarah Leamon and former police officer Grant Gottgetreu will be panelists at Grassroots: An expo for the cannabis curious on September 15 & 16, 2018 in Vancouver, B.C. To learn more about cannabis and impaired driving, and more, get your tickets now!