As legalization of recreational and medical marijuana continues to expand, police across the country are more concerned than ever about stoned drivers taking to the nation's roads and freeways, endangering lives.
With few accurate roadside tools to detect pot impairment, police today have to rely largely on field sobriety tests developed to fight drunk driving or old-fashioned observation, which can be foiled with Visine or breath mints.
That has left police, courts, public health advocates and recreational marijuana users themselves frustrated. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana and 30 states and D.C. have legalized medical pot.
Now one California company claims it has made a major breakthrough in creating what some thought of as a unicorn: a marijuana breathalyzer.
"We are trying to make the establishment of impairment around marijuana rational and to balance fairness and safety," says Hound Labs CEO Mike Lynn in his downtown Oakland, Calif., office.
In a freshly pressed dress shirt and short hair, it's clear Lynn is no stoner inventor with a pipe dream. The former venture capitalist is a practicing emergency room trauma physician in Oakland and an active SWAT team deputy reserve sheriff for Alameda County, Calif. He knows first hand the devastating effects drugged and drunk driving can have.
He picks up a small plastic box. "This is a disposable cartridge. And there's a whole bunch of science in this cartridge," Lynn says as he slips it into the device about the size of a large mobile phone. A small plastic tube sticks out of one end.
He starts to blow into the tube for the required thirty seconds.
Indicator bars start to show whether the machine detects any THC in his breath. THC is the psychoactive component in pot that gets you high.
Hound Labs says its device can accurately detect whether a person has smoked pot in the last two hours, a window many consider the peak impairment time frame. "When you find THC in breath, you can be pretty darn sure that somebody smoked pot in the last couple of hours," Lynn says. "And we don't want to have people driving during that time period or, frankly, at a work site in a construction zone."
Lynn then slides the cartridge into a small base station the size of a laptop, used to protect against cold or hot extremes. The breathalyzer needs a consistent temperature to have consistent results.
The device also doubles as an alcohol breathalyzer, giving police an easy-to-use roadside for both intoxicants.