What's Next in Impairment Detection Technology?

With the landscape around recreational and medical cannabis rapidly evolving in Canada, how is technology keeping pace to ensure that impairment is detectable on the roads and in the workplace? 

Detecting cannabis impairment is a challenge for employers and law enforcement, though a few progressive companies are working to offer solutions in cognitive testing, physical testing and to modernize workplaces. 

SureHire Occupational Testing Services

It’s a broad challenge, confirms Jason Sheehy, the Director of Occupational Health Services at SureHire. The company offers substance testing services for employers in safety-sensitive fields across Canada, including in oil and gas, construction and trucking. 

Employers are concerned, Sheehy says. As the date for recreational legalization approaches, and the number of prescription patients continues to rise, conversations around cannabis impairment work are becoming more frequent. 

And while changes in the legal framework will likely lead to increased use, there’s no need for employers to panic, Sheehy says. He admits, however, that managing the issue isn’t foolproof

While SureHire offers traditional drug detecting services, the saliva swab is the most time-sensitive test at an employers’ disposal. The test can detect whether a person has used cannabis within the past 24 hours. Urine and hair sampling can offer a broad profile on use, but there isn’t a tool that can accurately detect active impairment.

A major challenge, Sheehy says, is that the research around how THC and other cannabinoids are metabolized doesn’t meet the current demand by employers who need to know how medical cannabis may affect an employee’s ability to perform safely throughout. 

“In a sense, the business pace of medicinal marijuana has outpaced the science. We’re playing catch-up a bit on the back end, which makes everyone uncomfortable”, Sheehy says.

While we wait for the technology to detect active impairment to make it to the workplace, SureHire suggests employers start firming up policies around substance and medication use and encourage full disclosure from employees who may consume cannabis for medical reasons. 

While employees don’t have the legal right to work impaired or compromise safety to satisfy their own medical needs, employers can work with their staff on agreements around how and when they take their medication. Conditions may include that the employee can only consume cannabis at certain times of day, and that it’s titrated exactly as prescribed. SureHire recommends companies thoroughly train management on identifying signs of active impairment and that managers are empowered to make judgment calls and decisions. 

Safety is always key in the conversation and the antiquated ‘one size fits all’ approach simply doesn’t work in the modern workplace, Sheehy says. While many employers long stood by the ‘zero tolerance’ approach, the prevalence of medical cannabis has progressive businesses adopting refreshed drug policies while handling identified medical cannabis patients on a case-by-case basis. 

“It’s a tough discussion to have with some employers who have had zero tolerance policies for decades and are now, perhaps, being taken to task for not accommodating those with disabilities. There’s nothing easy about some of these groups changing how they run their workforce.”

Cannabix Technologies

The demand for tech-based solutions to detect active impairment is rapidly escalating. Cannabix Technologies is currently developing a device – a marijuana breathalyzer – CEO Rav Mlait hopes will be able to fill the gap. 

The Vancouver-based group has been actively developing the technology since 2014, after a group of entrepreneurs and scientists began working to address the growing needs of law enforcement and employers across North America.  

The device, which looks and operates much like a traditional alcohol breathalyzer, works to isolate and detect compounds using principals of mass spectrometry. Initial prototype testing in human subjects were successful in detecting THC in real-time. 

“We continue to refine and optimize our breathalyzer prototype in preparation for expanded scientific testing. Cannabix is working as quickly as possible to commercialize its device due to the growing demand,” Mlait told Cannabis at Work, adding the company hopes to have a commercial-ready device to market by the end of 2017. The public company hopes to see the device adopted at the federal level, and will be making announcements in coming weeks about work that’s being done to meet that goal. 

And while a breathalyzer may soon offer employers and police a tool to detect an accurate reading of THC on a subject, the problem of detecting active impairment may still exist.


DriveABLE president and CEO Peter-John Barclay opines the challenge may best be addressed with a multi-tool approach. 

The Edmonton-based business has been at the forefront of providing driver risk assessments around the globe for the past 15 years, and to date. The company’s cognitive-based assessment technology is currently being revamped and tailored to meet the emerging needs in jurisdictions where cannabis is becoming legal. 

“Knowing that marijuana impacts cognitive faculties closely associated with driving, there was an overlap in terms of what we were doing to potentially develop a solution to detect impairment,” Barclay explained.

DriveABLE is currently testing a tablet-based tool in Colorado, which employs a battery of six neuro-psych tests that combine the results in areas including reaction time, field of vision and executive functioning. The direct application of the technology is to detect impairment.

DriveABLE participated in federal marijuana legalization task force workshops in the fall of 2016, and the company is currently in consultation with the Colorado Task Force on Drunk and Impaired Driving. The application is currently being tested on highways by law enforcement in Colorado. 

“Colorado is a benchmark for this issue… in Colorado, once they legalized marijuana, pulling drivers over spiked but the convictions remained flat, because they couldn’t detect impairment,” Barclay said. 

Though law enforcement currently use roadside tests to detect impairment from alcohol, the same tests won’t work with cannabis impairment – different areas of the brain are affected by each substance. Data gathered in testing will be used to develop a clear profile of what cannabis impairment looks like. Employers and law enforcement could use DriveABLE’s technology to gather objective evidence to support suspicions a person has consumed too much cannabis to work or drive safely. 

Working with officials on both sides of the border has opened doors to develop the tech in time with the changes to legal frameworks, Barclay says, adding DriveABLE hopes to have a commercialized tool ready by early 2018, and a road-ready tool ready within two to three years. The tool could also be used by doctors and pharmacists to more accurately personalize prescriptions that would allow employees to take their medication and continue to work safely in safety-sensitive environments, Barclay says.

“The wave of marijuana that’s coming to hit the workforce is going to be significant, but I really believe the legalization of marijuana has only lifted the lid of looking at impairment in general. This has been a sleeping giant for many years.”

Written By Victoria Dekker for Cannabis At Work

SureHire: www.surehire.ca 
Cannabix Technologies: www.cannabixtechnologies.com
DriveABLE: www.driveable.com

Victoria Dekker is an award-winning print and online journalist, covering life, culture, and business in the cannabis sphere and beyond. Connect with her on Twitter @deadtowrite. 

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