Unlike for alcohol, there is no breathalyzer or in-the-field measure of performance such as the Standard Field Sobriety Test.

Impairment Measurement Marijuana and Driving (IMMAD), based in Quincy, Massachusetts, is a bioscience company working to fill the gap of limited technology to detect impairment to drive with marijuana use. IMMAD is collaborating with the Boston University School of Medicine’s Biomedical Forensics (BMFS) Program to do something about the risk of marijuana impaired drivers contributing to fatal crash rates.

HPLC-MS/MS technology in the forensic science lab at Boston University.

The BMFS team have found that tears are an excellent matrix from which to identify active and inactive cannabinoids. Further research is expected to demonstrate tears as being a more sensitive and specific measure than either breath or saliva. The science abstract discussed the early findings at a major forensic science conference this April. The paper will be at the Midwest Association for Toxicology and Therapeutic Drug Monitoring Virtual Conference.

Professor Sabra Botch-Jones spent the fall and winter working with one of her master’s-level graduate students, Allen Mello, to demonstrate efficacy of using the eye’s tears as a measure of marijuana cannabinoids in the body. Professor Botch-Jones and Mello worked on the hypothesis that because the tears have a large quantity of lipophilic/fat components and because cannabis/THC/marijuana adheres very well to fat, that the tears will be a more efficient and a better objective measure of cannabinoids with marijuana use than saliva or breath. Saliva and breath have very few lipid/fat components and do not adhere well or for long to marijuana cannabinoids. Breath as a water vapor is not likely to be capable of measuring cannabis consumption if the route of use was in edible form.

Bench work set up for the analysis of THC/marijuana at BU

IMMAD and Boston University measured the tears of volunteers having used their own legal adult use marijuana at the IMMAD research site in Quincy during the months of November, December and January.

“With the legalization of marijuana, there is a perception that it is safe to perform normal activities such as driving or working. This is not true, decades of research on marijuana’s impairing effects demonstrates that it is not safe to operate a motor vehicle, or other safety sensitive function, while using marijuana. Therefore, it is paramount that we conduct research and develop ways in which we can detect marijuana use and assess impairment,” said Professor Botch-Jones.

Unlike alcohol, there is no breathalyzer or standard field sobriety test currently in general use roadside by the police to measure an impairment to drive with marijuana. The more reliable means to determine recent use of marijuana is a blood test. The levels of cannabinoids in the blood do not have a linear relationship to functional impairment to drive and cannot, in general, be used effectively to determine if marijuana related impairment contributed to the crash. There are no roadside tests of breath currently in general use or approved by the FDA available to law enforcement to measure marijuana.

While there are tests of saliva in use in Canada, Europe, as well as states such as California and Michigan, they are not in use in Massachusetts. Developing an effective, accurate measure of marijuana in the driver’s system will be essential to understand how its use may or may not have contributed to a fatal crash. IMMAD already has the working prototype of technology to measure vision loss and dysfunction with marijuana use and this is predicted to be an effective means to determine the actual impairment to drive.

Dr. Denise A. Valenti, CEO and owner of IMMAD states, “IMMAD is committed to research and technology in support of the responsible use of marijuana. Use of marijuana temporarily impairs functions critical for safe driving.” The measure of the presence of cannabinoids in body fluids will confirm what is causing the impairment to drive. The use of tears may be an effective means to do this.

The analysis of tears relies on volunteers from the community who have been “opportunistically” dosing with their own legal adult use marijuana or medicinal marijuana after having had an initial intake screening visit without having used any alcohol or marijuana. Volunteers make a preliminary visit, without having dosed, to the IMMAD research facility in Quincy where the process is reviewed and the volunteer signs a research informed consent, standard protocol for human research.

The research coordinator then takes information about when and where the volunteer will be available after having dosed with their own marijuana product. The IMMAD research team then arranges transportation to the research facility by Uber or Lyft. Samples of tears are taken using simple swabs or pipettes, blood is drawn to compare with the tears and then the volunteer is driven to their site of origin by Uber or Lyft. The research has had approval by an accredited Institutional Review Board.

Boston University forensic science intern Allen Mello.

The completed study was part of Mello’s required research as part of the master’s level program. This academic program trains aspiring forensic scientists in a variety of disciplines applicable to both crime scene investigation and evidence analysis, skills crucial to today’s comprehensive forensic investigations. Professionals such as Mello are trained in the basic principles of forensic science with a strong biomedical and chemistry background, providing crucial expertise to forensic investigations.

After graduation, students are prepared to pursue a variety of career options in crime laboratories, medical examiner offices, law enforcement agencies, scientific instrument companies and hospital or biotechnology laboratories. All students complete a program of independent research culminating in a written thesis of publishable quality.

For interns, this type of research provides critical practical experience. Data collection and analysis takes place in the BMFS laboratories, other departments at BU or at internship sites such as crime laboratories or forensically relevant industries such as IMMAD. Mello received funding support for his internship research with IMMAD through the Intern Challenge program at MassLifeSciences. Mello developed analysis procedures for the tears along with his advisor, Sabra Botch-Jones. The analysis was done with the QSIGHT High Performance Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometer.

IMMAD wishes to remind all adults; enjoy legal adult marijuana responsibility. Do not drive. IMMAD welcomes inquiries about education programs and how legal adult use marijuana consumers can become a research volunteer.

For more info, email Dr. Denise Valenti at deniseavalenti@gmail.com or call 617-320-2997.