Smartphones Might Soon Detect If You’re High


Plus: Mapping the opioid epidemic; and troubling numbers about meth overdoses

By William Wagner

Smartphones are Swiss Army knives for the 21st century, serving innumerable functions. Soon they might even be able to detect whether someone has consumed weed.

This week in “From the Journals,” we also examine efforts to map the opioid crisis and look at a study showing the ever-growing menace of methamphetamine.

From Drug and Alcohol Dependence:
Smartphone Sensor Data on Marijuana

Researchers from Rutgers University think they’ll be able to use smartphones to detect whether a person is under the influence of marijuana. In a recent study, they used smartphone sensor data, similar to what is used in GPS systems, to determine if someone is high. The sensors analyze body motions and response times (both of which are slowed when someone is affected by marijuana); that data combined with time features (tracking time of day and day of week) had a 90% accuracy rate in the study.

“Given possible impairment in psychomotor functioning related to acute cannabis intoxication, we explored whether smartphone-based sensors (e.g., accelerometer) can detect self-reported episodes of acute cannabis intoxication (subjective ‘high’ state) in the natural environment,” the study’s authors write in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

It’s a technological breakthrough with enormous potential. “Using the sensors in a person’s phone, we might be able to detect when a person might be experiencing cannabis intoxication and deliver a brief intervention when and where it might have the most impact to reduce cannabis-related harm,” Tammy Chung, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Rutgers and one of the study’s authors, said in a news release.

From Preventative Medicine Reports:
Mapping the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is a rural problem in some states and an urban one in others, which adds to the complexity of reining it in. As Thomas Stopka, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, put it, “All communities are not created equal. The risk factors related to opioid overdose may not be as intense in some locations compared to others.”

“We want to be forward-looking to identify areas that might be vulnerable in the future, not just where most deaths have been in the past.”

—Jared Sawyer, NORC at the University of Chicago

To pinpoint how this issue leads to gaps in services, Stopka and his Tufts colleagues did a county-level analysis centered on Indiana. The end result was a map that, if fully developed across the U.S., could provide insights into what areas might emerge as the next opioid hotspots. “We want to be forward-looking to identify areas that might be vulnerable in the future, not just where most deaths have been in the past,” said Jared Sawyer, MPH, who works for the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago and contributed to the study.

For example, the study revealed that less than half of Indiana’s most vulnerable counties have a syringe services program (SSP). Said Stopka, “Those findings are particularly important right now, because Indiana and a number of other states have been contemplating shutting down SSPs despite the fact that they have been shown over numerous decades and through numerous studies to be effective from a public health perspective.”

From JAMA Psychiatry:
The Meth Danger Intensifies

Methamphetamine is a growing menace, according to a new study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that was published in JAMA Psychiatry. Meth overdose deaths nearly tripled among people ages 18 to 64 in the U.S. from 2015 to 2019. Adding to the danger is the addition of fentanyl to the equation. “We are in the midst of an overdose crisis in the United States, and this tragic trajectory goes far beyond an opioid epidemic,” Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, said in a news release. “In addition to heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine are becoming more dangerous due to contamination with highly potent fentanyl and increases in higher-risk use patterns such as multiple substance use and regular use. Public health approaches must be tailored to address methamphetamine use across the diverse communities at risk, and particularly for American Indian and Alaska Native communities, who have the highest risk for methamphetamine misuse and are too often underserved.”

Photo: Margo Amala