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(Just) Breathe: How Velocity startup SannTek can solve the cannabis impairment screening problem

Testing for cannabis impairment presents a large issue as there is no current technology that can detect recent use. The problem is that the chemistry of the THC molecule is fat soluble, meaning that remnants of the drug stay in your system for much longer than alcohol would. Depending on the amount of cannabis consumed, current blood and urine tests can create a false positive result, even weeks after initial use. This is problematic for users who consume cannabis recreationally in a safe and responsible fashion, let alone users who consume it for medicinal purposes after an extended period of time.

SannTek aims to solve this problem with their revolutionary cannabis breathalyzer, a device that uses a nanotechnology-enabled sensor to detect THC molecules in breath. This sensor provides an objective and much less invasive test that can correlate better to impairment than current methods. Beginning as a fourth-year Nanotechnology Engineering design project at the University of Waterloo, five Nanotechnology students took their idea to a proof-of-concept sensor in only two years.

“The state of affairs within the government at the time proved that there was a need for our sensor,” said Noah Debrincat, BASc, Co-founder SannTek. “With much talk of marijuana being legalized in Canada two years ago, and all of the chatter around the election, we knew that law enforcement needed a device that could quantify marijuana intoxication.”

Currently, SannTek’s most immediate target market is law enforcement officers across Canada, as legalized pot may induce a dramatic rise in drug impairment. However, considering the long list of safety-sensitive industries where it is critical that workers remain unimpaired (e.g., TTC bus drivers, crane operators, transport truck drivers), many workplace safety enforcers may begin seeking effective cannabis impairment screening solutions as soon as they observe spikes in drug impairment.

“We have a unique advantage because our device incorporates nanotechnology. Many competitors are attempting to scale down massive lab equipment machines, such as mass spectrometers, down into a tiny device. When you start off large, its nearly impossible to shrink something down because of size and weight constraints. Starting off small, with a tiny nano-enabled sensor and building a macro device around that makes sense and is actually possible,” says Debrincat.

The goal now is to build the hardware that fits around their state-of-the-art sensor so that police officers can operate a cannabis breathalyzer roadside. Extensive research with local, provincial, and federal law enforcement, has led the team to fully understand what features a cannabis breathalyzer must incorporate. SannTek also reveals that other competing devices presented to these authorities so far have been inaccurate, fragile and expensive. Furthermore, some can only function above 4 °C, which will be a problem in the middle of Canada’s cold winters.

Drug impairment screening is a serious problem in the pot legalization era. With multiple police forces deciding against the use of federally approved saliva tests, SannTek believes that the market is seeking a more accurate, effective solution. However, until its reliable, easy-to-use cannabis breathalyzers are shipped to law enforcement offices across the country, citizens and police will need to make-do with existing tools now and in the near future.