Stoned drivers targeted by new breathalyzer technology

While effective for detecting recent alcohol use, current breathalyzers are not adept at detecting THC levels to determine recent marijuana use. (Photo: West Midlands Police)

By Brady Jones
Medill Reports

Slowed reaction time. Reduced ability to make decisions. Impaired coordination. Memory loss. Difficulty in problem-solving. These are some of the symptoms listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describing people who drive under the influence of marijuana. And right now, it is very difficult for law enforcement officials to determine when these drivers are sharing the road with you—and may be responsible for causing an accident.

Detecting recent marijuana use by drivers is far more difficult for law enforcement than detecting the presence of alcohol. Currently, testing can’t be done for marijuana using on-site breath samples. Now, a new device that aims to provide a reliable solution to this growing concern is being developed—and law enforcement officials welcome the potential of the new technology.

As more states move to legalization for recreational purposes, marijuana is more accessible to people with limited or no experience using it. The ability to successfully detect drivers that have smoked or ingested the drug becomes paramount to keeping drivers safe. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that produces the feeling of being high, does not show up on current, traditional breathalyzer devices used by law enforcement to detect blood alcohol content.

Hound Labs, Inc. is one of a few companies developing the technology for THC detection. With what the company describes as “ultra-sensitive breath technology,” these breathalyzers can detect THC in the breath of suspects to levels below 5 picograms. By testing the breath, the device avoids the need for sampling blood, saliva or urine, and can eliminate the error of detecting marijuana use from previous days.

“Current tests—such as blood, urine and oral fluids—all detect THC for much longer than the two to three hours after smoking that global researchers have identified as the window of peak impairment,” said Louisa Ashford, marketing manager for Hound Labs. “Breath is the only place in the body where THC remains for just a few hours after smoking, which makes it a much more useful indicator of recent use and possible impairment than any other test.”

Ashford declined to identify any police departments or officials in discussions with Hound Labs about their product, but she claimed that there is a great deal of interest across the country.

Cannabix Technologies, another company developing a THC detection system that is targeting the same two-to-three-hour period. In a statement posted on their website, the company promotes their technology as an important step “in the pursuit of bringing durable, portable hand-held tools to market to enhance detection of marijuana impaired driving offenses on roads at a time when marijuana is becoming legal in many global jurisdictions.” Cannabix Technologies did not respond to requests for additional comment.

The new breath collection technology allows immediate results for roadside testing and can help create a standardized testing practice across the country. Since legal, recreational use of marijuana is still a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, the methods of detecting impaired drivers are varied and still evolving.

“We are submitting blood samples to a state certified lab,” said Sheriff Joe Pelle, of Boulder County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado, which was the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2014. “Blood is drawn after probable cause is developed to believe someone is driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.”

According to the CDC, the number of self-reported marijuana users is on the rise. Since Colorado set the standard for legalization in 2014, there are an average of 7,000 new users of marijuana every day. The CDC also estimates an increase of 4 percent in nighttime, weekend drivers with marijuana in their system since 2007—up to an estimated 13 percent of overall drivers.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has a Drug Influence Evaluation sheet that police officers can use to conduct a roadside sobriety evaluation, including physical coordination tests and appearance evaluations for eye redness and pupil dilation. However, these are largely judgment calls by the attending officer. Not having an efficient breathalyzer device makes it difficult to attach a reliable numerical value to the driver’s level of sobriety.

One legal hurdle that the companies will need to clear is that the THC breathalyzer must conform to each particular state, county and city regulation regarding sobriety testing in order for the department to use it.

“In order to be interested in a device like this, it would need to receive the blessing of the Colorado Department of Health, as well as DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), and would have to get through some Frye hearings to be admissible in court,” said Pelle. The Frye standard is a legal term stating that, for expert opinion based on a scientific technique to be admissible in court, the scientific technique must be accepted by a meaningful segment of the associated scientific community.

If these specific bureaucratic requirements can be met, the new breath collection technology can be an important tool for law enforcement to detect the growing number of impaired drivers and keep all drivers safe.

Photo at top: While effective for detecting recent alcohol use, current breathalyzers are not adept at detecting THC levels to determine recent marijuana use. (West Midlands Police)