Feds Developing Phone App To Measure Marijuana Impairment

By Tom Angell | July 21, 2017

How high are you? There’s an app for that. Or, at least the federal government wants there to be, and it’s offering researchers cash to develop it.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) issued a request for proposals this week to create technologies for detecting what they are calling “Digital Markers for Marijuana Intoxication.”

Specifically, the feds want to pay to support the development of iPhone and Android apps that can one day be used by police officers to determine whether drivers are too high to drive.

“The app features may leverage and integrate with the internal sensors, compatible add-apters and external hardware to monitor the measurable markers of marijuana intoxication,” the new NIDA solicitation says. “Examples of the app features may include, but not limited to, accelerometer, microphone, gyroscope, facial or eye pupil’s changes recognition software, glucometers, inhalers, skin voltage sensor, heart rate sensor, other existing and newly developed sensors.”

Remarkably, NIDA’s request clearly articulates the lack of reliability of current blood- and saliva-based marijuana intoxication testing methods that are in widespread use by police departments across the country.

“The rapid and variable absorption and release of THC into the blood stream makes it difficult to correlate the level of THC with impairment in chronic marijuana users,” it says.  Cannabis “metabolites can be detected in the blood, however, they have been not associated with the psychoactive effects of marijuana use. This translates into unreliable blood tests for marijuana detection which have high rate of false positive result.”

While oral fluid associated with saliva testing is “easy to collect, non-invasive, and is associated with recent cannabis intake,” NIDA writes, “recent studies have shown that the saliva-based tests have a two- to five-fold greater variability than the blood tests, and the level of marijuana detection is also not precise.”

In light of those limitations, NIDA says the new apps “could have enormous impact meeting a critical, unmet need for clinical research and law enforcement procedures.”

The apps need to be created on Apple Inc.’s ResearchKit and/or Android ResearchStack frameworks so that they can be widely used one day.

Applicants must also have the ability to legally obtain federally-produced marijuana through NIDA so that they can test their apps’ reliability in actually detecting impairment of people who recently consumed cannabis.

NIDA anticipates making grants to three or four separate teams, and has budgeted $225,000 for the initial proof-of-concept phase of development, slated to last six months, and an additional $1.5 million for a second, two-year phase of widespread testing and validation.

Proposals are due by October 20. A pre-proposal webinar will be held for interested applicants on on August 15, 2017 at 2:00 PM ET.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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