Brainwaves may provide better insight into cannabis impairment

Published Mar 19, 2021 01:00 p.m. ET
iStock / Design Cells

Cannabis legalization is sweeping the globe, and as a result, society is experiencing a historic change that can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable. A legitimate industry that takes the psychoactive favourite out of the shadows of the black market is absolutely incredible for millions of entrepreneurs, business owners, cannabis companies, and consumers. Still, we’ve got at least a few more things to work on, and one of them is how we’re supposed to handle, track, and punish those who chose to get high before driving.

A road is a dangerous place full of giant hunks of metal that are flying at a pretty good pace, so we need to do everything that we can to reduce the risk that people face when they have to share these lanes with other drivers.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as road rules or fancy lights that can help us to figure out who shouldn’t be there, and this isn’t a new struggle. Cannabis might be new on the scene, but we’ve been dealing with impaired drivers for eons, and we’re not doing it very efficiently.

Alcohol testing

When a person is suspected of driving while under the influence of alcohol, generally, law enforcement will request some sort of test to determine whether or not they might be too impaired for the road. The most common form of roadside alcohol testing is the breathalyzer, but urine and blood samples will tell a similar tale, as they are all designed to measure the amount of alcohol that is in a person's body.

If you blow over the allowable amount, then you could get slapped with a fine or risk license suspension, and it doesn’t take much to make a person fail this test. For some, it could be just half a drink, and for others, it could take closer to 2 or 3. Still, it’s the lowest possible allowable amount for everyone because any more than that implies the potential for risky behavior.

In case you haven't noticed yet, there is a huge flaw in this system, and it’s that the test doesn’t actually determine whether or not a person is impaired. It can only suggest that there might be a possibility. Of course, in situations where high concentrations are found, it’s not even a question, and most would agree that these individuals should be off the roads, but what about the ones who felt fine? The drivers who swear they were in no way at risk or fault, in hopes of avoiding a DUI.

The reality is that these tests simply cannot determine impairedness in any person, and we’re still doing the same thing with cannabis now that it’s joined the ranks of legal recreational drug options.

Cannabis testing

Law enforcement officers in most regions entered the time of legal cannabis with few to no tools to do their job appropriately. The only way that they could for certain detect the presence of THC was by using the same kind of technology already in circulation for alcohol. Saliva swabs, urine or blood, could be taken, but they rarely were, and it’s still that way in most places unless a serious collision or questionable behavior occurs.

The thing is that we know, especially in the case of cannabis, the psychoactive effects can vary greatly from one person to the next, a phenomenon that is even more prevalent among cannabinoid consumers than it is alcohol drinkers. We don’t completely understand why this is, though there are a lot of theories floating about, and that’s why some experts decided that it’s time for us to find a better and more efficient reliable way; One that doesn’t go solely off of measurement, because this number alone means almost nothing in the grand scheme of things.

The cognalyzer

In 2019 Zentrela Inc., a start-up located in Hamilton, Ontario, raised $1.2 million from various non-profits and government agencies to design and build an EEG prototype uniquely named the cognalyzer. The machine was created shortly thereafter, and since then, researchers have been studying the brainwaves of hundreds of participants.

How do brainwaves work to detect impaired drivers?

The cognalyzer uses both neuro signals and machine learning to determine cognitive impairment instead of the traditional testing for cannabinoid or alcohol concentration within the body. Now that the machine creators have mapped out the brainwaves of participants before, during, and after driving, they can accurately determine impairment, and much more accurately than any other test on the market today, but their work isn’t finished quite yet.

New funding

Zentrela Inc. has the incredible EEG tool, the cognalyzer, but it needs a lot more information to hone in on the unit's accuracy in predicting the effects of cannabis 2.0 products. Until now, most of the data collected was gathered after the consumption of cannabis flower, but these potent derivatives can add a whole other round of possibilities that must be thoroughly researched before the benefits of the cognalyzer will be fully realized.

This next study will keep a focus on more intense psychoactive cannabis products like edibles, tinctures, capsules, and oils. The goal is to create a database for both producers and retailers to use, a map that lays out what to expect from each different product choice. To get it done, Zentrela secured $850 in seed funding, and with that cash, the company will create a data as a service platform that will be useful at various levels of business and regulation throughout the cannabis industry.

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