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B.C. duo aims to detect drug-impaired drivers with breath testing

Vancouver-based radiologist Dr. Raj Attariwala is shown at his office on Sunday. Mr. Attariwala and his relative, former RCMP officer Kal Malhi, are developing a device to detect marijuana usage.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

With two U.S. states already legalizing marijuana and other North American jurisdictions considering following suit, a former RCMP officer says he's developing an easier way to test for drugged driving – a pot breathalyzer.

Kal Malhi, who worked as a Mountie for a decade, the last four of those years in drug investigations, says police badly need a tool that makes it easier to tell if a driver is high.

"I think it's more necessary across North America than it was before because we're going through a system when it comes to marijuana where marijuana is being made readily available across our societies," he said in an interview.

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Colorado and Washington State voted to legalize marijuana in 2012. Colorado pot stores have already opened; the first Washington stores are expected to open next month.

There have been anecdotal reports of increased drugged driving in Colorado since legalization, but little in the way of hard evidence.

Mr. Malhi, an RCMP officer in Surrey, B.C., before leaving the force in 2011 to try his hand in the business world, said he first decided to develop the Cannabix Breathalyzer after reading a study out of Sweden. The study found that people could be tested for marijuana through their breath, as opposed to traditional methods involving saliva or urine.

Mr. Malhi said breath testing has one major advantage – it can show if a person has smoked marijuana within two hours. In saliva and urine tests, marijuana can be detected if it's been smoked at any point within 72 hours, long after the high has passed.

Trying to prove a driver is still high when they've gotten behind the wheel, Mr. Malhi said, can be frustrating for police.

"It's largely based on observations you make of the person. And the observations aren't so obvious for drugged drivers as they are for drunk drivers," he said.

Mr. Malhi has partnered with Raj Attariwala for the Breathalyzer project. Dr. Attariwala, in addition to being a family member, is a Vancouver-based radiologist and nuclear medicine physician with a doctorate in biomedical engineering. Bruce Goldberger, of the University of Florida's Forensic Toxicology Laboratory, is serving as a senior adviser for the project.

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Mr. Malhi said he has applied for the patents for the breathalyzer. He expects it will be at least a year before that process is finalized.

He said he's confident his team can take the study's findings and incorporate them into a handheld device that provides accurate readings. The plan is to have a prototype built within three to four months, then have the Swedish university that led the initial study run a clinical trial with that prototype.

Mr. Malhi said with marijuana use becoming more accepted within society, the need for such a device will only go up.

Dana Larsen with Sensible BC, a group that last year fell short in its petition for a marijuana referendum, said he does see a problem with the breathalyzer idea. Mr. Larsen said there isn't an easy correlation between having marijuana in one's system and being impaired.

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