Two Startups Developing a Breathalyzer for Pot

CANNABIS CULTURE – Studies show driving with weed at the wheel isn’t as dangerous as driving after a round of shots, but in a reality rife with delusion and irrationality, law enforcement officials have promised zero tolerance for mixing cannabis and cars.

Still, it’s hard to prove that someone is driving high – unlike beer or wine, THC lingers in the system for days (sometimes weeks), long after any psychoactivity has passed. This does two things. First, it likely over-inflates how many car accidents are related to weed (when a news reports that the driver had cannabis “in their system” they can’t say if the person was truly impaired). Second, it prevents authorities from knowing whether someone was breaking the law. But several companies are working to fix this.

The Need for A Breathalyzer

Right now, no breathalyzer for pot exists. Instead, cops can pull you over on the assumption that you’re high. In some states, certain types or policeman are specially trained to sniff out cannabis – they put the driver through a roadside sobriety test designed for drugs (not merely marijuana but meth, heroin, cocaine, etc.). This works sometimes – police catch people who decided to dab and drive. But it also results in some level of unfairness. It’s not unheard of (or all that difficult) to fail a roadside sobriety test even when you’re stone-cold sober; some people’s nerves get the best of them.

All of this compounds the need for a breathalyzer for pot and a few companies are answering that call. Not only are these companies striving to create a breathalyzer, but they’re also striving to create the first one. It’s not exactly the Race to Space, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

According to CBS, two of the companies tossing their hat into the ring include Hound Labs and Cannabix Technologies. Both of these companies are startups that are developing handheld, small devices complete with tubes. They are designed to be used similarly to alcohol breathalyzers, with the drivers blowing into the tube as the authorities gauge if they’ve consumed cannabis recently…very recently.

Hound Labs

Hound Labs, for their part, has yet to publish clinical results in a peer reviewed journal but the company claims that “company testing” has led to success in accurate assessment of THC in breath levels in parts per trillion — or picograms — explained further here.

Hound has managed to raise a lot of cheddar: they’ve amassed 8.1. million from the venture capital company Benchmark. This is the same company that funded Uber and Tinder, two companies that have seen wild success. With this financial backing, Hound Labs has already begun clinical trials with the help of the University of California, San Francisco.

The Hound device won’t only detect cannabis in the breath, but it’ll detect alcohol too. And, as the trials are proving successful, Hound Labs predicts that they’ll be selling their product by the end of the year. The device will cost between $600 and $800 and will be sold to police departments. Employers who want to purchase them will also be able to. They assume the market for the latter will rest in recreational states, states where employers may want to test bus drivers and delivery drivers before their shifts begin.

The way the device works is fairly simple: it detects the THC molecules in the breath, molecules that are present for about two hours after pot consumption. This is vital, as the two-hour window coincides with actual impairment. Other forms of testing, as alluded above, can determine whether a person consumed THC, but not when they consumed it. Urine, blood, and saliva samples might detect THC weeks later, well after any impairment has ended.

Hound Labs maintains that they’ve discovered a breakthrough that is one million times more sensitive than what is used to measure alcohol. This technology already exists – in the form of liquid chromatography mass spectrometers (LCMS) – but not in a transportable or economic feasibly form. Many of the existing LCMS machines are the size of Xerox machines – they wouldn’t fit in the average police car. Hound Labs is attempting to bring this technology to the masses by taking away its mass – their device is smaller than some cellphones.

Cannabix Technologies

Up north, a Canadian company is also working to develop the first breathalyzer for pot: Cannabix Technologies is working on a device that measures THC molecules in a manner similar to the one described above.

They’re slotted to sell later than Hounds Lab – a year to a year and a half, rather than by the end of the year. And they anticipate that their product will cost more, between $1000 to $1500 per device.

Cannabix has partnered with the Yost Research Group at the University of Florida to design a device based on “high-field mobility” and “mass spectrometry.” On their website, they state the reason behind their mission and the need for a product such as theirs. They write, “Medical and recreational marijuana use is becoming legal across various jurisdictions in North America and globally. This is presenting a significant challenge to law enforcement to keep our roads safe from drugged drivers. Current marijuana enforcement relies on an officer’s ‘opinion’ as to the impairment by marijuana – there is a need for a scientific approach that can accurately determine levels present in a non-invasive way.”

While alcohol breathalyzers determine the level of impairment – with authorities able to surmise, based on an individual’s BAC, whether you drank a glass of wine or a gallon – pot breathalyzers don’t work like this. They give a “yes” or “no” answer to the presence of THC with nothing in regard to the degree of that presence.

The above is important for drivers to keep in mind; any use, even one hit of a not-too-potent strain, can return a positive result. This is something to beware of if you’re going to reach for the bong before you reach for your car keys.