World's First Marijuana "Breathalyzer" Is On The Way But Will It Work?

By Paul Fuhr 08/09/18

The breath analysis test can reportedly detect THC and alcohol.

Police officer on his motorcycle pulling in behind a vehicle

A breathalyzer that can determine whether a driver has smoked marijuana might be rolling out in cities as soon as this fall, according to Newsweek.

The Oakland, California-based company, Hound Labs, says it has developed the world’s first marijuana breath analysis test, which could be leveraged by police departments in all the same ways alcohol breathalyzers are.

With more and more states legalizing weed, law enforcement officials have become worried about individuals driving when they’re high, Newsweek noted.

Unfortunately, police officers don’t have an accurate roadside test to tell if a driver has consumed weed. That’s why the marijuana breathalyzer could be a game-changer, says Hound Labs CEO Mike Lynn.

“We are trying to make the establishment of impairment around marijuana rational and to balance fairness and safety,” he noted, explaining that the device will detect THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. 

Unlike alcohol, however, timing is crucial when it comes to measuring marijuana impairment. With alcohol, a driver is considered impaired with a blood-alcohol level of 0.8; with marijuana, it’s not so clear-cut. Many experts agree that there is a two-hour window during which the full effects of THC will show up.

“When you find THC in breath, you can be pretty darn sure that somebody smoked pot in the last couple of hours,” Lynn said. “And we don't want to have people driving during that time period or, frankly, at a work site in a construction zone.” (In addition to THC, the device can detect alcohol, too.)

For many law enforcement officials, the device couldn’t come at a better time. Right now, THC can only be detected through blood tests—and even then, it remains in the system much longer than other substances.

“Unlike alcohol, THC can remain detectable in the blood stream for days or weeks, when any impairment wears off in a matter of hours,” said Taylor West, former director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “So [what] all those numbers really tell us is that, since legal adult-use sales began, a larger number of people are consuming cannabis and then, at some point… [are] driving a car.” The new device would help police zero in on the drivers who are truly putting themselves and others at risk.

Some critics remain skeptical that devices like the breathalyzer or Canada’s saliva-testing device will work at all. For one, new research has revealed that THC levels “don’t line up in a straightforward way with how impaired people are,” Live Science reported.

Toxicologist Marilyn Huestis argues that the largest problem isn’t determining how far over the line someone has gone with marijuana so much as where that line even exists.

“I used to be someone who thought [that] if we could just get a good limit, that would work," she said. "But [with] all the work on chronic, frequent users, we realized there's no one number that's going to distinguish impairment.” 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.