John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It could happen, with Swedish researchers reporting they were able to detect drugs in the breath of addicts.
The police already have fairly sophisticated ways to tell if you're driving while drunk – witness this alcohol-sniffing flashlight that a cop can aim inside your car. But will they someday be able to tell if you're high as well, with a breathalyzer-type device that senses the recent use of cannabis, cocaine and other drugs?
The technology certainly seems to be heading that way, to believe new research out of Sweden. On Thursday, scientists at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute announced that they'd successfully detected drugs by analyzing the groovy vapors wafting from people's gullets. Their technique picked out not just classic stuff like weed, cocaine and amphetamine, but also prescription drugs such as diazepam and the painkiller buprenorphine, raising the possibility that Future Cops could bust drivers for raiding their medicine cabinets to the point of impairment.
So how'd the researchers manage this feat? By using a cheapish, commercially available monitor called the SensAbues, it turns out. They gathered a group of drug users from an addiction emergency clinic and took blood and urine samples for a baseline. They then had them blow into the SensAbues to collect the contents of their lungs, which they parsed using chromatography and mass-spectrometry techniques.
Drugs ingested into the body tend to infiltrate a delicious-sounding substance called the "airway lining fluid." When drug users exhale, they spew out tiny particles from this fluid – and this is where the researchers found a motherload of 12 brain-twisting compounds:
Alprazolam and benzoylecgonine were detected in exhaled breath for the first time, whereas for methadone, amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine, 6-acetylmorphine, tetrahydrocannabinol, buprenorphine, diazepam and oxazepam, the results confirmed previous observations.
"Considering the samples were taken 24 hours after the intake of drugs, we were surprised to find that there was still high detectability for most drugs," said lead author of the study Professor Olof Beck.
Should the world welcome what the Swedes herald as a "new matrix in clinical toxicology"? They seem to think so, noting that obtaining samples of mouth air is easy in a roadside setting and less intrusive than getting blood and urine. Yet it could be a pain in the butt and justified grounds for a lawsuit for somebody who smoked a joint or took a pill a day ago and is fine to drive. (The full study in the Journal of Breath Research is here, although it requires an account to access.)