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Scientists Designing a Marijuana Breathalyzer

Marijuana Breathalyzer | Just Believe Recovery Center
In This Article

Chemists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) have found a key chemical discovery needed for the development of an electronic marijuana breathalyzer. The research was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Organic Letters.

The widespread decriminalization and legalization of marijuana in California and elsewhere have made marijuana use detection vitally important, said senior author Neil Garg, Professor and Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA.

Neil Garg, as quoted at UCLA’s website Chemistry and Biochemistry:

“When I grew up, people were taught not to drive drunk. I haven’t seen the same type of messages for marijuana yet, and statistics indicate more than 14 million people in the U.S. smoke marijuana and drive.”

Garg states that their objective was to devise a simple solution that “could be adopted by society. He says that they have shown that the chemical structure of THC can be changed using “perhaps the simplest chemical means possible: electricity…”

Evan Darzi, former postdoctoral scholar at Garg’s laboratory:

“We want a simple breathalyzer that doesn’t require specialized training because a police officer is not a trained synthetic organic chemist.”

Although Garg and Darzi have developed the chemistry that would function as a marijuana detector/breathalyzer, they have not yet created an actual device. Garg stated, however, that they have “established the fundamental proof of concept.”

How a Marijuana Breathalyzer Would Work

Garg and Darzi have developed a simple oxidation process comparable to that used in an alcohol breathalyzer. Oxidation is a process characterized by the loss of an electron from a molecule. The chemists removed a hydrogen molecule from THC. Alcohol breathalyzers convert ethanol to another chemical compound, and hydrogen is lost through oxidation.


“The chemistry we are doing with THC is the same thing. We remove a molecule of hydrogen from THC. That is oxidation. This leads to changes in the color of the molecule that can be detected.”

Garg and Darzi report there are two ways to oxidate THC. Their preferred approach is to use electricity.


“Some of our initial ideas involved trying to get complicated molecules to bind to THC in order to detect a signal. After a while, we realized the simplest solution is to pump electricity into THC and have a chemical reaction occur that produces a change we can detect.”

Garg said that oxidation is among the “simplest reactions one can do to a molecule.”

Marijuana Breathalyzer | Just Believe Recovery Center

The structure of THC contains a unit known as a phenol. When chemists oxidize a phenol, the process produces organic compounds called quinones. Garg noted, “We know how to oxidize a phenol into a quinone.” THC and quinones absorb light in different ways. “Once we knew that, we decided to use electricity to perform the oxidation.”

Darzi then used a device in Garg’s laboratory (the ElectraSyn 2.0) that allowed him to produce electrochemical reactions.

The chemists witnessed a change in where the molecules absorb light. THC absorbs light at a specific wavelength, and Darzi and Garg discovered that, when oxidized, it absorbs light at a different wavelength. The researchers said they have received positive responses from other chemists with whom they have shared their findings.

What’s Next?

Garg said that the next big step is to achieve the same result with a breath sample from an individual who has ingested marijuana recently and to prevent false positives. Research suggests that marijuana on the breath can reliably show if the drug was smoked or otherwise used in the last 4-5 hours.

Garg hopes that a marijuana breathalyzer would be cost-effective for consumers to obtain so they can test themselves before deciding whether or not to drive or operate machinery. Garg and Darzi predict that a marijuana breathalyzer would produce a numerical result, perhaps not unlike blood alcohol level concentration determined by an alcohol breathalyzer.


“Professor Garg and I both have young children, and our children will grow up in a world where marijuana is legal. We’re glad we can play a role in helping society address this issue.”

Getting Help for Addiction

Although marijuana is not considered to be as dangerous as other drugs, heavy and chronic use can result in a variety of adverse consequences to one’s health and professional and social life. Those who are struggling to quit using marijuana are urged to seek treatment in a clinical setting, including detox and a long-term inpatient program.

Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery offer therapeutic services essential for the recovery process, including psychotherapy, counseling, group support, psychoeducation, experiential activities, aftercare planning, and more.

If you or someone you know is motivated to quit using marijuana for good, please contact us today and find out how we can help you break free from the grips of drug abuse for life!


Org. Lett. 2020, 22, 10, 3951-3955
Publication Date: April 24, 2020
Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

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