Could this device put an end to driving while high?

woman smoking marijuana
Could this marijuana breathalyzer test be a game-changer? (Image: Twenty20/@Marizzinha)

Currently, marijuana is legal for recreational use in nine states (plus the District of Columbia) — and more seem poised to roll out legalization in the near future. But as it starts becoming the norm, law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned with the volume of people driving while stoned. California-based company Hound Labs might have a solution: a marijuana breathalyzer test.

The potentially game-changing device is specifically designed to pick up THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

“We are trying to make the establishment of impairment around marijuana rational and to balance fairness and safety," Oakland-based Hound Labs CEO Dr. Mike Lynn told NPR. Lynn, an ER physician and reserve deputy sheriff, demonstrated the test for the NPR reporter, which contains a disposable cartridge that can detect traces of THC — letting users know whether someone has used the drug within the past two hours.

"When you find THC in breath, you can be pretty darn sure that somebody smoked pot in the last couple of hours," Lynn said to NPR. "And we don't want to have people driving during that time period." According to the Hound Labs website, its research indicates “they have identified a peak window of impairment that lasts two to three hours after smoking, which is the same time period that THC is measurable in breath.” Therefore, if it’s showing up in your breath, you’re likely impaired.

Some studies do show links between THC and impaired driving. An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study from 2016 analyzed fatal car crashes in Washington state over a four-year stretch and found that the percentage of drivers with detectable THC in their blood increased—from about 8 percent to 17 percent—over time, likely coinciding with the legalization of marijuana for personal use. In research of its own, Hound Labs found that when navigating a high-speed driving course, sober drivers made no mistakes, but “drivers made a series of errors when stoned.” However, others are not convinced.

According to Dr. Roberta DeLuca, former healthcare executive and CBD advocate for CBD BioCare, purveyor of full-spectrum, organic CBD oil, there are different marijuana strains and degrees of potency which will affect everyone differently. She points out that tests don't always reliably indicate how much one uses or take into account that THC can stay in your body as long as a month after using it.

Another study, published in 2015, found that subjects in a driving simulation with 13.1 nanograms per liter of THC in their blood showed a level of impairment similar to that of someone with a .08 blood-alcohol content. At this time, however, there’s no consensus on what “impairment” means when it comes to marijuana. The legal limit for THC in states such as Colorado and Washington is just 5 nanograms — much less than the point at which driving seems to be affected — and for Nevada and Ohio, that threshold drops to 2 nanograms.

Hound Labs is hoping to release the breathalyzer in early 2019. Until then, more research is needed on the topic — some already in progress.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you believe marijuana impairs your ability to drive? Do you think this breathalyzer is a game-changer? Let us know in the comments below!

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