On track to be legalized by next summer, recreational marijuana is a hot news topic in Canada. The announced legislation would make Canada the second country in the world to legalize marijuana after Uraguay in 2013. An unfortunate likely effect of legalization is more people at the wheel under the influence, with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reporting that even prior to legalization, in 2015 twice as many Ontario residents drove after using marijuana compared to 2010.

Marijuana is the second-most commonly used drug, after alcohol, yet it has been argued there is still no reliable way to test for marijuana intoxication roadside. Under the recently introduced legislation, police are able to demand a saliva sample from a driver if they reasonably suspect the person has drugs in their body. Should a portable saliva screening device lead police to believe an offense has been committed, they could order an examination by an evaluating officer or through taking a blood sample. However, the scientific basis for determining impairment by the drug (as opposed to the mere presence in someone’s body) is not as clear as the basis for establishing impairment by alcohol.

The reason being that marijuana is a trickier molecule to detect in comparison to alcohol due to its solubility in fats rather than solubility in blood. A user can have THC in their muscle tissue for longer without being inebriated, making it much more difficult to determine intoxication. Velocity company, SannTek, is developing a sensor to detect THC intoxication levels in real-time, equivalent to a breathalyzer for testing blood-alcohol content. What started as a fourth-year Capstone Design project has turned into a startup run by five Nanotechnology Engineering students. Founders Karolyn Mackowiak, Thomas Dunlop, Ben Milligan, Noah DeBrincat, and Chris Taylor have been part of the Velocity Science program since April 2017, and most recently won a $5K prize at the Velocity Fund Finals this November, and another $5K prize at the Problem Pitch Competition this October.

“Our education up until now has been theory-based; it is great to be able to apply our knowledge to something that’s our own.”
– Karolyn Mackowiak, Co-founder of SannTek

As the legalization deadline rapidly approaches, the co-founders recognize that method detection will be one of their biggest hurdles. On the heels of their most recent win, they are focused on two areas; developing the core tech in their prototype and zeroing in on customer validation. The student entrepreneurs are excited to take on the challenge of this problem.