According to research published in Organic Letters, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported the key chemical discovery that is necessary for the creation of a small electronic breathalyzer to detect marijuana.

Senior author Neil Garg, UCLA’s Kenneth N. Trueblood Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and chair of UCLA’s department of chemistry and biochemistry, has said that the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana in California and elsewhere have made marijuana detection especially important.

“When I grew up, people were taught not to drive drunk,” Garg said. “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. Our goal was to devise a very simple solution that could be adopted by society. We have shown in this study we can change the chemical structure and properties of THC—the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana—using perhaps the simplest chemical means possible: electricity, to determine whether a person is impaired.”

“We want a simple breathalyzer that doesn’t require specialized training because a police officer is not a trained synthetic organic chemist,” said lead author Evan Darzi, a former postdoctoral scholar in Garg’s laboratory.

While the chemistry has been detected there is no device yet. “We have established the fundamental proof of concept,” said Garg, who received the 2018 Robert Foster Cherry Award—which is the largest university teaching prize in the U.S., awarded by Baylor University—and was named the 2015 California Professor of the Year.

“The chemistry we are doing with THC is the same thing,” Garg said. “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.”

“Some of our initial ideas involved trying to get complicated molecules to bind to THC in order to detect a signal,” Garg said. “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. It doesn’t matter what the change is, as long as it is easy to detect. Oxidation is one of the simplest reactions one can do to a molecule.”

“Professor Garg and I both have young children,” Darzi said, “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.”

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