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Marijuana breathalyzer

THC Breathalyzer Hits California Streets

Police in multiple parts of California are rolling out the nation’s first “marijuana breathalyzers” in a unique experiment to gauge how well they pinpoint impaired drivers.

Multiple high-quality studies have confirmed that driving while high on cannabis is relatively safe – at least in comparison with alcohol, which dramatically increases the risk of collision, injury, and death. High driving is no more than twice as dangerous as getting behind the wheel sober, while drunk driving is 13 times more likely to kill.

But police view stoned motorists as a growing problem, and they have long been looking for a way to measure marijuana intoxication in the same way they test for drunkenness. The “breathalyzer” approach raises numerous problems, but cops see it as their best option. The machine is set for national distribution in 2017.

Accuracy gauged using risk-free experiment on motorists

That’s why several local police departments in California rolled out a new marijuana breathalyzer prototype in September, enlisting random drivers in a risk-free experiment.

Police stopped erratic motorists suspected of driving while under the influence of cannabis, but instead of searching or arresting them, cops asked them to submit to a voluntary breathalyzer exam. If they passed, they’d be sent on their way without charges or fines. If not, they’d be sent on their way without charges or fines, though impaired drivers had to agree to a free ride home.

A marijuana user submits to a breathalyzer test
A marijuana user submits to a breathalyzer test

The results? Two of the volunteer drivers admitted they had toked within the past half hour, and both tested positive after blowing into the handheld device. A few other motorists tested positive after admitting to smoking up within the last two to three hours.

One participant was arrested, but that person was noticeably intoxicated on alcohol, police said.

Participants were keen to test breathalyzer

“Basically everyone agreed because they were curious,” said Mike Lynn, CEO of Hound Labs, the Oakland-based company that teamed with chemists at the University of California to design the pot breathalyzer. Lynn, a reserve officer with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, joined fellow Bay Area cops in administering the tests.

“We were not trying to arrest people,” he said. “Sure, we could arrest people, and people are arrested every day for driving stoned, but the objective was not to put people in jail but to educate them and use the device if they volunteered so we could get the data.”

The cannabis breathalyzer detects THC on a subject’s breath after they eat marijuana-laced edibles. It’s not clear how accurate it is, or whether it can detect THC consumed by smoking, vaping, or other methods.

Current testing methods are highly inaccurate and unreliable. They require saliva, urine, or blood samples, and long-inactive THC molecules can lead to criminal charges against drivers who weren’t actually stoned.

Patrick Walsh, chief of the Lompoc Police Department, said he plans to issue at least six of the machines to his officers by 2017.

“We are looking for the least invasive way to obtain information that indicates impairment, which is why we are participating in roadside tests,” Walsh said. “We don’t want to arrest people who are not impaired, and yet we don’t want marijuana users driving if they are high from recent use.”

Leave a comment: Do you trust marijuana “breathalyzers?” Would you have agreed to participate in this voluntary study? Let us know.

About Matt Brooks

Based in San Francisco, Matt is a journalist who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than five years. He provides regular news coverage on and

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