A start-up in California has invented a device that could open the door to nationwide legalization. Based out of Oakland, Hound Labs have created a portable marijuana breathalyzer that will be able to tell if whoever uses it has been smoking recently. However, while the device has yet to hit the public, questions on how it will affect the public still hang in the air.  With the device’s first field test set to roll out in the fall, could we be seeing another step towards legalization?

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Law and Order Approved

In 2014, emergency room physician and deputy sheriff Mike Lynn thought of an idea to make it easier to accurately catch people driving under the influence. Shortly after, he and his wife founded their Hound Labs with the goal of making a functional marijuana breathalyzer.

The company hasn’t been short of investors. Business Insider states that with Dick Wolf, creator of the “Law and Order” franchise, and Benchmark Capital, who years ago put their money into Uber, Dropbox and more, have led to around $34 million dollars in funding. Almost five years later, Hound Labs are closer than ever to unveiling their project to the public. There are plans for a limited rollout this fall to law enforcement and a “nonprofit trade union that represents more than 35,000 construction workers in Northern California,” according to the Business Insider article.

How Does It Work?

Police officer giving the breathalyzer to the other man iStock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Even trace amounts of weed can show up in your breath. That’s a problem. When creating a device to look at how high you are at the moment, your breath can tell a wildly different story than what’s actually going on. Our breath can have hints of marijuana lingering for hours after you last smoked.

Trace amounts can be found even up to a day later. Another problem that is prone to popping up is that these traces of weed in your breath can be wildly different levels. Each person is different, which makes individual amounts of weed in your system hard to track. According to their website, the Hound Labs device is similar to an alcohol breathalyzer (it can detect alcohol as well) with “the disposable cartridge on the breathalyzer automatically [capturing] two breath samples.

After the breath samples have been collected, the cartridge is removed and placed in a small portable processor that then measures alcohol and THC in one of the samples.” The device “measures THC in breath to levels as low as 1 trillionth of a gram, or 1 picogram per liter of breath (1pg/L). This is the sensitivity required to measure recent marijuana use throughout the 2-3 hour window of peak impairment identified by researchers.” To compare, an alcohol breathalyzer looks for traces of alcohol in the thousandths of a gram, way higher than a trillionth of a gram.

Lynn told NPR that it's “kind of like putting together more than a dozen Olympic size swimming pools and saying, 'Hey, go find those 10 specific drops of water and in those 10 pools put together.' Lynn and his team at Hound Labs say they have found the answer.

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Don’t Hold Your Breath

Marijuana has a pesky habit of staying in your system for quite some time. That’s what people look for when you are drug tested. They look to see if you have ingested marijuana within a certain timeframe. They don’t care if you smoked last week, yesterday or if you took the test high.

If you are pulled over, the only way a police officer can check to see if you are under the influence of something is through a field test. The field tests check your motor skills and officers also use some subjective judging to see if you look or are acting high. Part of Lynn’s goal for his device is to take the subjectivity out of law enforcement.

He told NPR “We are trying to make the establishment of impairment around marijuana rational and to balance fairness and safety." Lynn wants his device to ultimately make objective data be the deciding factor on if you are well enough to drive.

Where Do We Draw The Line?

hand rolled cannabis joint iStock / OlegMalyshev
In Canada, where marijuana is legal nationwide, the government is still trying to figure out where the limit of how much weed is too much to drive safely. Vice Canada published an article about the Hound Labs device and compared it to current efforts in Canada to regulate pot smoking. If you’re pulled over in Canada, you may be subject to an oral liquid test.

The reportedly problematic test is the only way that police can detect THC in a person’s system roadside. A person in Canada can legally drive if they have less than two nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in their system. That’s compared to Colorado, where, However, in America, the penalties for driving and smoking aren’t the same across the board. Only seven states in America have guidelines on how much THC can be in your system while you drive. California has no limit while in Colorado law states “if a person has more than 5 nanograms of delta-9-THC per milliliter of blood, a court or jury can infer that they are impaired.”

This comes from each state’s own independent study on the issue as nationwide, researchers are still trying to find out where to put the bar for too much weed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even says that they aren’t sure how much THC impairs your driving. A crash report they put out even states that “the increased risk may be due in part because marijuana users are more likely to be young men, who are generally at a higher risk of crashes.” Regardless of what the science says, a weed breathalyzer opens doors for more than just the police.

Employers could also be the next group that dives in on the testing. The first initial test run for the breathalyzer even plans to be used on a construction site this Fall. Yeah, we probably don’t want people building important structures stoned, but we also don’t know what a weed breathalyzer will do to our society in the end. It could be the domino that falls for legalization across the country, but if not perfected, could be a disaster for pot smokers. Wikileaf reached out to Hound Labs for an interview and was denied multiple times.