Talk about a case of good timing.
As the country marches ever closer to Oct. 17, 2018, the date that recreational marijuana use will become legal for Canadians, a Velocity company specializing in the field of nanotechnology is aiming to produce a breathalyzer-type device suitable for the roadside testing of cannabis.
SannTek, founded by a pair of University of Waterloo engineering grads, is confident it can provide law enforcement agencies and workplace safety personnel with a tool that is far more accurate, far more robust and far less invasive than the current saliva- and blood-testing regimen, which has been adopted amid no small degree of concern as October approaches.
“At Sanntek, our mission is to use nanotechnology to prevent life-threatening accidents from occuring in various places. The first way we’re tying to do that is by developing a breathalyzer for cannabis,” says Sanntek CEO Noah Debrincat, who, as you would imagine, is well aware of the company’s fortuitous timing.
“There are already people knocking on our door: Is your product ready?”
The adoption and approval of cannabis testing equipment, in particular for law enforcement agencies, has been something of an open question mark ever since the federal government pledged to make recreational marijuana use legal. On Monday, in fact, news emerged that the government had approved the use of a device called the Draeger DrugTest 5000, which can read THC levels obtained from a swab taken from a person’s mouth (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive component of cannabis). Police officers will pull a driver over, administer a swab test, and a positive reading can trigger further testing, including a blood test, itself subject to much debate and likely to be subjected to court challenges.
Notwithstanding the recent debate, the immediate pitfalls of the swab test are its “uncomfortableness and invasiveness,” says Debrincat.
“The way we address that is by making a breathalyzer. Part of the novelty of our device is applying our sensor to a breath technology.
“We’ll be blowing into a device very similar to what an alcohol breathalyzer would look like. It’s just less invasive; it happens just as fast [as an alcohol breathalyzer].
And the founders believe, far more accurate, due to the properties of breath and their detection methods.
Debrincat says the company has already proven the sensor element, which is based on nanotechnology. The breath portion of a device is still under development, but the co-founders believe they’ll “be able to have someone actually blow into our device and have a sensor read out the measurements,” by the end of this year.
SannTek, which won $25,000 at the Velocity Fund Finals pitch competition last spring, grew out of a University of Waterloo fourth-year design project. Debrincat and his co-founder, Thomas Dunlop, moved into the Velocity Garage in the Tannery last April after they graduated.
Debrincat says that while the company has consulted with various Canadian police agencies in recent months, including the Region of Waterloo Police Service, its work is not affiliated with determining standards for THC impairment. Rather, it will merely measure THC and provide a number based on a scale; it will be up to the authorities to decide what number constitutes impairment and triggers a response.
“A breathalyzer for detecting cannabis, is cutting edge. But the next step is detecting impairment. There’s a whole other world.
“We make it clear in our mission statement, we are not trying to get people in trouble. We don’t want to get people who were smoking on the weekend for fun or for medicinal purposes in trouble. We don’t have any objection to that.
“What we’re worried about is someone who is highly impaired going to a construction site, operating a crane, and impacting people severely or life threatening.”
The co-founders believe, additionally, that their device will safeguard a person from being unfairly sanctioned by a workplace or incorrectly charged by authorities due to an inaccurate or poorly administered test, insofar as they believe their test is better than any currently available.
“This is your best bet in terms of not getting biased by a device detecting THC [use] Saturday morning [from] when you were at the cottage. As opposed to Monday morning before work.”
Their secret sauce is the nanotechnology, which is capable of amplifying sensitivity.
“If you want a correlation to recent [THC] use, you should be using breath. And if you want to pick up the particles in breath, then you need to use some form of sensitive, accurate nanotechnology,” says Debrincat.
While the technology has clear advantages for law enforcement – a THC breathalyzer would require no sampling of bodily fluids, for example – and would no doubt be welcomed by police for roadside use, Debrincat says that the company’s business development is, for now, focussed on the construction industry.
“Construction companies, specifically, are reaching out saying we don’t want to endanger the lives of our workers, we don’t want to endanger the lives of the general public. We want a way to prevent life-threatening accidents from happening.
“So we are talking to a lot of construction companies, local and in the southern Ontario region, [who are] saying, we would love to pilot your device as soon as it’s done.”
And Debrincat wants to clear up a common misconception: their test space isn’t enveloped in a haze of marijuana smoke. For starters, they don’t smoke. “It’s illegal,” says Debrincat. And more to the point, their tests make use of the chemical in marijuana, THC, which they are licensed by the Government of Canada to procure and use on its own for lab tests – and which is kept under strict, prescribed, lock and key.