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Marijuana Breathalyzer not quite ready yet

There is still no scientific accepted method of determining whether a person is high on cannabis at any given time. Sure, there are drug tests that can sample your hair, urine, or blood to determine if you’ve used cannabis — but anyone who’s taken a drug test knows that marijuana can stay in your system for up to 30 days.

So even if you test positive for marijuana, you may have smoked that weed a month ago. The police have no reliable mechanism to test whether a suspect is actually high when he stops someone. That’s a problem, as the police conduct sobriety tests in the field to determine the driver’s disability.

An Oakland company called Hound Labs has created what they say is the “first double alcohol and marijuana breathalyzer,” a portable device that tests both booze and weed. Hound Labs says they plan to use their new breathalyzer by the law enforcement, truck and construction industries, claiming it could be commercially available as early as possible year.

According to the company’s website, the Hound breathalyzer is a billion times more sensitive than current alcohol breathalyzers. They say their breathalyzer “accurately identifies recent marijuana use by measuring THC in the breath — where it stays for just the few hours that correlate with peak disturbances after smoking.”

Despite their claim to be the “first” marijuana breath tester, Hound Labs isn’t the only company trying to develop something like this. A Canadian company called Cannabix Technologies claims they have a breath detector for THC that is “under” development”, and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh also insist that they have a work prototype.

Oakland’s Hound Labs may be closer to marketing a cannabis breath test, mainly because they have a lot more money to play with. That company has received $65 million in venture capital financing, including an investment from “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf.

The Hound Labs breathalyzer does not measure your disability like the blood alcohol level measurement of a standard breathalyzer does. Instead, the company says their device can tell if you’ve been smoking weed in the past few hours.

They claim that this breathalyzer is sensitive enough to absorb trace amounts of THC in your breath for two or three hours after you consume it. Plus, they swear it picks up not only the marijuana smoke residue, but any edibles or vaping hits you may have made in the “peak disorder” window of the few hours after you drink.

“We found that THC moves quickly from blood to breath and consistently appears in the breath in very low concentrations for two to three hours,” says Dr. Kara. Lynch, associate professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF, whose clinical trials formed the basis for Hound Labs breath analysis technology. “The ability to catch breath and measure such low concentrations of molecules represents a major breakthrough.”

The team of dr. Lynch didn’t build this breathalyzer, but their clinical findings showed that THC molecules do indeed appear in your breath a few hours after use. This team published their findings in July in the respected, peer-reviewed medical journal Clinical chemistry.

But that clinical trial only proved the underlying claim that cannabis could be detected in breath samples for up to three hours after use. That’s not the same as saying that this Hound marijuana breath tester has been proven to work, and the breath test itself played no part in their research.

And especially everyone in the relatively small sample size of just 20 study participants smoked cannabis. They didn’t use any edibles or vape devices, so the claim that the Hound breath tester would pick up those other forms of cannabis remains unproven.

SF Weekly was eager to inflate and take this marijuana breath tester for a test drive, but the company won’t let the media test this device until it’s commercially available.

But there’s enough interest in tools for assessing marijuana sobriety that it’s probably inevitable that someone will perfect this technology and eventually get it into the hands of law enforcement. That day hasn’t arrived yet, but still – if you’re too stoned to ride, take the main road and call for a rideshare.

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