On January 1, 2020, some 30 years after the now late Pastor Victor Roach began a one-man crusade advocating it, the Barbados Government finally introduced breathalyzer testing as one of the amendments to a revised Road Traffic Act.
The Government Information Service released a public service announcement featuring Portia Blackman and Jennifer Walker spelling out the safe drinking limits as well as the penalties associated with violating the new law. But Acting Police Commissioner Erwin Boyce has stated that it will take a while before people are actually brought before the courts on charges of driving under the influence (DUI).
In a recent interview, he stated: “We understand the anxiety of the media, and perhaps members of society, to see the first case of a person caught through breathalyzer testing going before the court, but from where we sit, we thought it best to pursue the educational approach as opposed to the operational approach at this time.” He added that officers had undergone the necessary training to use the equipment properly and that “we have had some conversations with the Ministry of Transport and Works and we had our own internal conversations looking at the way forward and how we can strategize to make sure that it becomes an effective tool”.
We would like to know just how and when the testing will be done. Will it form part of random spot checks when officers are on the road examining driver’s licences or insurance documents? Will it be applied as a matter of course if a driver is caught speeding or driving erratically or gets into a serious accident? Do we currently carry out post-mortems on drivers who lose their lives in vehicular accidents to determine whether intoxicating substances such as alcohol might have led to their demise?
While we commend the introduction of testing for excessive alcohol consumption, we must also consider other substances which may impair a driver’s ability to concentrate, such as marijuana. At this time, however, there are certain challenges associated with testing for this particular drug. In an article in Science Daily written in January 2018, toxicologists stated: “Many variables can affect how impaired someone is at any given concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the body. Whether it is inhaled or consumed can affect the level of impairment, and if paired with alcohol, it makes the high higher and the alcohol ‘buzz’ last longer.”
Another dilemma is that THC – the main psychoactive compound in marijuana – leaves the bloodstream fairly quickly with occasional use. Research has shown that while an occasional user is impaired for six to eight hours, blood THC concentrations can be effectively zero after two and a half hours. The report farther states that “on average in the United States, it takes from 1.4 to 4 hours after a crash or traffic stop to administer a blood test, meaning that if someone is driving while impaired, by the time you get their blood sample some 90% of the drug is already out of their system”.
In terms of people who use marijuana daily, such as those taking it for medicinal purposes, “THC accumulates in the tissues of the body and slowly releases over time, meaning that chronic users can test positive for cannabis even after 30 days of abstinence, and psychomotor impairment can be observed three weeks after the last dose”.
One researcher, Marilyn Huestis, who has spent over 20 years leading cannabinoid-related research projects at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States, says: “You want people to take medicinal cannabinoids and now you know their driving is going to be impaired. How do you handle that problem?” While she does not support a legal driving limit as is the case with alcohol consumption, she advocates for well-trained police officers who can identify behavioural signs of impairment and less invasive biological marker tests, which can be immediately performed at the roadside to indicate the presence of cannabinoids.
In 2016, a team of researchers at Stanford University in the US, led by Shan Wang, a professor of materials science and engineering as well as electrical engineering, developed a device that uses magnetic biosensors to detect THC molecules in saliva. These researchers believe that “testing saliva is less invasive and THC levels in saliva may correlate with impairment better than THC in urine or blood”. The challenge, they acknowledge, is that “these tests may be called upon to detect superlatively tiny concentrations of THC. Some states have no set limit of THC in the body for drivers, while others set a limit of 0 or 5 nanograms (a billionth of a gram) per millilitre of blood. This device can detect concentrations of THC in the range of 0 to 50 nanograms per millilitre of saliva”. The team carrying out the experiments stated that the device can also be used to test for other drugs, such as morphine, heroin or cocaine.
We are pleased to report that Barbados has been recording fewer road fatalities in recent years, but to this day, there are no statistics indicating whether intoxication – be it from alcohol, marijuana, other drugs presently considered illegal, or even prescribed medication – has played a role in some fatal accidents. Ideally, with breathalyzer testing now coming into force in Barbados and tests for other substances being developed, we will get a better handle on this matter and save some lives in the process.