Police Departments Are Testing a Weed Breathalyzer That Can Tell If You're Stoned

A California-based startup is rolling out a super-sensitive breathalyzer that can tell if you’ve smoked weed in the past two hours. The goal? To help police keep impaired drivers off the road.

Driving while high is a major risk. Studies show that driving after you toke up can lead to dangerous habits like weaving, steering issues, and late braking, MensHealth.com previously reported.

Currently, officers use field sobriety tests to determine if a driver is high, according to USA Today. They may also mandate blood, breath, or urine tests, which don’t always indicate if a person was high when they got behind the wheel. Many can only determine if a driver was high at some point that day or week.

A possible solution? The marijuana breathalyzer

Hound Labs says it has developed a combination weed and alcohol breathalyzer that accurately determines if someone is currently driving under the influence — an increasingly common occurrence as weed laws loosen across the country. (A recent Colorado study found that 69 percent of weed users had driven while high in the past year, and 27 percent said they did it on a daily basis.)

The company’s co-founder, Dr. Mike Lynn, is an emergency room physician and reserve deputy sheriff who believes officers need a tool for accurate marijuana detection.

“It was clear that we needed a way to solve the problem of identifying people who are potentially impaired and then leaving everybody else alone,” he explains to MensHealth.com. “You don’t want to be arresting people who aren’t impaired, right?”

Hound Labs

How does the breathalyzer work?

As with traditional alcohol breathalyzers, a user blows into Hound Labs’ handheld device. The breathalyzer collects breath particles on a proprietary disposable cartridge, then analyzes it to reveal whether the user has smoked, vaped, or consumed pot within the past two hours. (Research has shown that impairment is most drastic one to two hours after marijuana use.)

The breathalyzer cartridge stores detailed information about a user’s levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the component of marijuana that gets you high. But the breathalyzer doesn’t immediately reveal that data, because there’s still no legal limit on the amount of the TCH a driver can have in his system.

“The reading only indicates if you have pot on your breath or you don’t,” says Lynn.

Hound Labs isn’t the only startup developing marijuana breathalyzers, but Lynn says his company is way ahead of the competition. It isn’t easy to detect THC on the breath; the cannabinoid is measured in parts per trillion, which Lynn says is like finding two sand particles in several Olympic sized pools. (He wouldn’t divulge how Hound Labs overcame those hurdles, but the company works with the University of California San Francisco to conduct clinical tests with human subjects that verify the product’s accuracy.)

Hound Labs

How would it work in the real world?

So far, an undisclosed number of police departments have tested the product. More law enforcement testing is planned for the future, but Lynn can’t disclose details due to non-disclosure agreements.

As of now, science hasn’t pinpointed what level of THC constitutes impairment, meaning there’s no marijuana equivalent of the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) used by law enforcement. Right now, 18 states have zero-tolerance laws for driving with THC in your system. But again, it’s difficult to know from urine and blood samples whether someone smoked just before driving or just sometime that week.

Stephen Lankenau, a community health and prevention expert at Drexel University who researches medical marijuana, says it’s complicated to determine whether it’s safe to drive after using marijuana.

Factors like body weight, tolerance, and the influence of other substances like alcohol could impact your high. So when it comes to law enforcement using the breathalyzer, “There needs to be a better measurement other than just ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” he tells MensHealth.com.

A viable breathalyzer would need to offer a more nuanced reading, Lankenau says. But first and foremost, science needs to determine a safe level of THC that doesn’t make it dangerous to drive.

“Getting those levels right would be really key,” he says. “Otherwise someone could be in some kind of legal jeopardy if they haven’t done anything wrong.”

Currently, recreational weed is legal in nine states, while medical marijuana is allowed in 31 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s still unclear how marijuana breathalyzers will work in the real world, but the need for better THC intoxication guidelines is growing stronger.

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