Marijuana Breath Tests Could Be Available by 2020

Roadside breath tests which can detect whether drivers have smoked marijuana in the past three hours may be available by next year.

Firms such as Oakland-based Hound Labs and Canadian company SannTek are hoping to have working products ready in the latter half of 2020, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Co-founder of Hound Labs Mike Lynn, said that his company's test will show if someone has used marijuana within a three-hour window—which is when the strongest effects of the drug can be felt and driving is most impaired.

Earlier this year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety published the results of a survey which indicated that nearly 15 million Americans had driven a vehicle within an hour of smoking marijuana or using cannabis products in the 30 days prior to the survey.

The devices being developed by both companies are designed to look for evidence of tetrahidrocannabinol (THC) in the body. This substance is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.

However, detecting the substance is far more difficult than identifying alcohol, with Lynn describing the science as "amazingly challenging." This is because the quantity of the psychoactive compound in the body is tiny—hundreds of millions of times lower than than the amount of alcohol flowing through the body of someone who is drunk.

"We had to completely create the device. It's like looking for [a certain] 25 grains of sand on a beach a mile long," Lynn told the Bee.

The developers of the new devices say that their testers will fill a gap in the market as marijuana is increasingly legalized for medicinal and recreational use across the country.

Currently, police forces must go through a time-consuming and expensive process to determine whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana. Forces often rely on Drug Recognition Officers (DROs) who are specially trained to spot the types of impairment caused by different drugs.

If a DRO suspects that a motorist is under the influence of marijuana, the driver is taken to hospital for blood tests, which will identify if the drug is in their system. DROs often have to spend significant amounts of time in court, where they provide expert testimony.

The new devices have the potential to streamline this process, the companies say, cutting down on costs and police time. Furthermore, the field tests will make it easier to convict those who have driven under the influence of marijuana, while also helping defense attorneys prove that their clients were innocent in cases where the suspect hadn't used the drug before getting behind the wheel.

The testers could also be used by employers in certain industries to ensure that workers are not under the influence of marijuana while using heavy machinery, or doing other potentially dangerous tasks. Noah Debrincat, a nanotechnology engineer from SannTek, said that his company's device—which can also detect whether someone has used marijuana in the last three hours—could benefit both employers and employees.

"I actually do see it as benefiting all parties," he told the Bee. Most tests currently used by employers reveal marijuana use stretching back as far as 30 days, meaning workers could be penalized in some cases even if they are not high on the job.

While the technology is promising, right now, police forces are biding their time before publicly supporting the marijuana breath tests.

"I think it's interesting technology, but we don't want to be the first to jump on it," Madera Police Chief Dino Lawson told the Bee. "Absolutely, there's a need for it. I hope they perfect it."

DUI checkpoint
A driver is questioned at an LAPD police DUI checkpoint in Reseda, Los Angeles, California on April 13, 2018. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images