Stoned drivers and weed-smoking workers take note: marijuana Breathalyzers will soon be in the hands of police officers and employers.
In fact, marijuana Breathalyzer prototypes have already been put to use for Covid-19 testing, after some innovations allowing them to detect SARS-CoV-2 antigens in breath.
Marijuana Breathalyzers have been in development for years and are finally approaching the launching pad as commercial products. Hound Labs, based in Oakland, California, says that market release is imminent for its Hound Marijuana Breathalyzer, which can detect the presence of THC molecules in the breath.
“The first commercial units of the Hound Marijuana Breathalyzer will be in the hands of customers this spring,” Dr. Mike Lynn, an emergency room physician who is CEO and co-founder of Hound Labs, told High Times. “Production will ramp up throughout the rest of 2021.”
This is bad news for workers who get high on the job. But it’s good news for employers who want to weed out such behavior. And it’s good news for anyone with safety concerns about bong-ripping motorists.
Hound Labs has also customized its Breathalyzer for Covid-19 testing and found that it can detect the antigens in the breath, similar to how it detects THC. Last year in New York City, Hound Labs partnered with Triple Ring Technologies to study super spreader events.
The introduction of the Hound Breathalyzer could really shake things up for law enforcement, motorists, employees, employers, and cannabis users. It’s different from other drug tests because it can test whether the person is currently high, as measured by the presence of THC molecules in the breath.
The developers of the Hound believe that THC molecules linger in the breath for up four hours after smoking. This is different from urine tests, which show whether the person has used marijuana or other drugs within the last couple weeks or so. They could be sober during the test but still fail.
Dr. Lynn said the purpose of the device is to “maintain safety while recognizing many employees have the right to legally use marijuana.”
An employer might not care if an employee smoked pot last week, but they might want to know if their employees are getting stoned on the job.
“If employees legally smoke cannabis at a BBQ on Saturday night and their employers test their breath at work on Monday morning, the breath tests will be negative,” he said.
The device is a bit different from alcohol Breathalyzers, which measure the blood-alcohol level of drivers, enabling police officers to determine whether a driver has reached or exceeded the threshold for intoxication.
The Hound does not measure how stoned a person is. The existence of THC in the breath is considered proof enough that the person is stoned at the time of testing, according to Hound Labs.
Hound Labs isn’t the only one working on a marijuana Breathalyzer. Cannabix Technologies of Vancouver has released its THC Breath Analyzer for “beta testing,” according to Chief Executive Officer Rav Mlait. He said his company is focused on getting field use data from its THCBA devices. This data would then be used to “shape” the Canadian process for detecting THC intoxication, he said.
The University of Pittsburgh has also been developing a marijuana Breathalyzer. Alexander Star, Professor of Chemistry and Bioengineering and Clinical and Translational Science, says that since 2019 he has made his Breathalyzer prototype available “to interested commercial partners” for analyzing the breath of marijuana smokers.
He said that getting the prototype closer to commercialization was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
“Temporary lab closures and strict social distancing protocols do not create a favorable environment to hands-on laboratory research,” he said. “However, any challenges present unique opportunities.”
He said that his researchers started using the sensor chip from the marijuana breathalyzer to create a rapid COVID-19 antigen test. So, like Hound Labs, the University of Pittsburgh researchers found a way to use the Breathalyzers to help with coronavirus testing during the pandemic.
The Changing Cannabis Landscape
Even though cannabis is still prohibited by the federal government, the state-level legalization of adult-use cannabis is sweeping across the country. The momentum is growing with East Coast states like Virginia, New Jersey and New York progressing in their path towards legalization.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has signed a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis in the state, and while the process has been slow and halting, legislative experts estimate that recreational sales could begin within a year or two.
It is difficult to say how legalization would impact stoned driving in New York. Crashes increased by up to 6% in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington after those states legalized adult-use, according to a 2018 report from the Insurance Institute for High Safety. The data does not specify marijuana as the cause of the crashes, but it is certainly on the mind of law enforcement in states where adult-use legalization is now a reality, like New York.
Identifying stoned drivers can be challenging for police officers. William “Beau” Duffy, spokesman for the New York State Police, told High Times that traffic safety is a “core mission” for state troopers, who are “extensively trained” to identify impaired drivers based on observations of driving, interviewing the drivers and administering field sobriety tests.
“Still, impaired driving continues to pose a significant safety risk, and our Troopers continue to witness the tragedies caused by those who choose to drive while impaired on drugs or alcohol,” he said.
Duffy said that he was familiar with the marijuana Breathalyzers currently in development, but he had yet to use one.
“We are open to reviewing any tool or instrument that will assist Troopers in identifying impaired drivers,” he said. “Their devices are not yet available to us, but when they are, we certainly will have a strong interest in testing one.”
He added that court approval would be required before the tests could be used as evidence in arrests.