There's An App for That: Technology to Check Your Level of Impairment

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Columns | <b>Cannabis Voices</b>

One of the biggest concerns about cannabis consumption for law enforcement is determining if a driver is too high to drive. Now there’s an app that could be the answer.

One of the rising concerns in states that have legalized medicinal and recreational cannabis use is how to determine impaired driving. Law enforcement has always wanted a way to test drivers for impaired driving while under the influence of cannabis, and have become increasingly frustrated with the methods they currently use. So far, any driver suspected of impaired driving while consuming cannabis is subjected to roadside physical ability tests similar to other DUI roadside tests. But the results of these tests are purely subjective depending on the law enforcement officer doing the tests, and most of those tests don't stand the scrutiny of a judge (if presented by an informed attorney). Other tests, such as blood or urine that typically confirm a suspected DUI after a roadside test, can't be used for cannabis because of the properties of cannabis when in the human bloodstream. A blood test can show that an individual is still showing levels of cannabis in their blood weeks after consumption, but that individual will not be showing any signs of impairment.

With this concern in mind, Dr. Michael Milburn, chief scientific officer and founder of DRUIDapp, Inc., set out to solve the problem with a convenient phone app. Dr. Milburn received his PhD from Harvard University in 1978, and was a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston for the past 40 years (now retired), with a specialty in research methods, measurement, and statistics. Here, he discusses the DRUID app and how it can be used for public health and safety.

Please tell us about your public health app DRUID (driving under the influence of drugs). What led to its development? How does it work?  
Dr. Michael Milburn: Prior to the November 2016 election when Question 4, a referendum was on the ballot in Massachusetts to end the prohibition against adult use cannabis, police and law enforcement were raising the alarm that there was no device to measure impairment from cannabis. Since the structure of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) molecule is such that it can stay in the body long after impairment is passed, the cannabis “breathalyzer” makes no sense.  What makes sense is measuring actual impairment.  This is what the Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and the more extensive Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) protocol purport to do-however, all these judgments remain subjective, necessarily relying on the expertise and training of the officer.

With more than 40 years of experience with statistics and measurement, I thought, “I bet I can figure that out.”  I designed the app, hired a freelance programmer in China, and got it into the App Store.

DRUID uses computer game like “Tasks” (for example, different shapes flash on the screen and the person needs to touch the screen in different places depending upon the shape) to measure reaction time, hand-eye coordination, balance, and the capacity to perform tasks that require “divided attention.”  Divided attention tasks necessitate people attending to multiple stimuli at the same time, a capacity central for driving that is also impaired by alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs.  DRUID also includes the single-leg stand from the SFST, important because one-third of the neurons in the brain are in the cerebellum.  If there is impairment in balance, that is an indication of system-wide impairment.  The app will include adjustments for age, since getting older is a major source of instability; nevertheless, since the SFST is not validated for individuals over 50, DRUID presents a significant improvement.


How long did it take to develop the DRUID app?Milburn: DRUID is under continual development to add features and improve its precision as we collect more data.  I designed DRUID and got it into the App Store fairly quickly, as these things go-7 months after I started, DRUID was accepted in the App Store on the first submission.  DRUID was added in Google Play in November 2017. 

Is the intention for DRUID to be used by every day citizens to check their impairment level before driving?Milburn: Drivers could do that.  Also, all pilots could do it as part of their pre-flight safety check.  Also, drivers of trains and trucks.  Also, workplace safety testing-current drug testing does not measure impairment, just use.

Will there be a version that law enforcement can use for field sobriety tests? What research have you conducted on that front?Milburn: At some point, law enforcement will need to include more objective measures of impairment.  We only use breathe alcohol as a way to infer impairment.  I have been working with law enforcement in Massachusetts and Washington state.  DRUID needs more testing and validation, but ultimately DRUID or some similar device will probably be used by the roadside.  Because it provides an objective test of impairment, basic fairness, and protection of civil liberties will demand it.

You recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH/NIDA) for your Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant proposal. How will that funding shape the future of your app?Milburn: My SBIR grant ($1.7M when fully funded) will allow my DRUID research team to conduct dosage- and placebo-controlled studies of impairment from cannabis.  The SBIR funds will also enable to me to work with medical cannabis doctors around the country in testing DRUID-important research because of the concerns raised about medical cannabis patients driving.  DRUID will allow these patients to do an assessment of their own impairment and will enable doctors and patients to determine the best treatment with the least impairment.

Have you partnered or done research with any other companies or universities that are working on a cannabis impairment test (1)?Milburn: Cannabis researchers at Johns Hopkins, Yale, UC Boulder, University of Denver, and Washington State University are using DRUID in their cannabis research. Up to this point, no companies have partnered with us yet, but we are beginning to field questions from potential investors.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
Milburn: I did not develop DRUID to bust stoned drivers, I want to stop them from getting in the car in the first place.  For me, DRUID has always been about public health, safety, and saving lives.