Pot Breathalyzer Hits the Street

American police have for the first time used a marijuana breathalyzer to evaluate impaired drivers, the company behind the pioneering device declared Tuesday, saying it separately confirmed its breath test can detect recent consumption of marijuana-infused food.

The two apparent firsts allow Hound Labs to move forward with plans to widely distribute its technology to law enforcement in the first half of next year, says CEO Mike Lynn.

Lynn, an emergency room doctor in Oakland, California, also is a reserve officer with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and he helped pull over drivers in the initial field tests, none of whom were arrested after voluntarily breathing into the handheld contraption.

Two people admitted smoking marijuana within the past 30 minutes, Lynn says, and in a satisfying validation for his technology -- created with University of California chemistry assistance -- their readouts were much higher than the rest.

Other drivers, he says, admitted to smoking marijuana within the two-to-three-hour window that the device appears able to detect the high-inducing compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) on a smoker's breath, and the test confirmed it.

"Basically everyone agreed because they were curious," Lynn says. "We were not trying to arrest people. ... 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 technology, if all goes according to plan, will be welcomed by both sides of the pot legalization debate, those who fear drugged drivers and reformers outraged that pot users in some jurisdictions are subjectively detained and forced to undergo blood tests that don't prove impairment, especially in frequent users.

The drivers stopped in the initial field testing were seen driving erratically or had committed a traffic infraction, Lynn says, and though no recent marijuana user was arrested, they were forced to find another ride home.

A drunk driver was arrested during field testing, he says.

All drivers tested were stopped by Lynn and at least one other officer, he says. Lynn declined to confirm if the officers were from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, where he works, and a department spokesman did not reply to a voicemail requesting comment.

None of the detained drivers had recently consumed edible marijuana, but Lynn says testing on state-legal medical marijuana users who ate gummy bears and a brownie revealed it works on them too.

Edible marijuana generally gives users a delayed high and appeared to be detectable for longer on a person's breath. Like exhaled alcohol the THC in breath leaves the bloodstream through the lungs, Lynn says.

There's a two-part testing challenge now: confirming with laboratory equipment that the device gives accurate results, and then correlating specific measurements (given in picograms of THC) with levels of intoxication, a challenge that will include sending stoned drivers on an obstacle course -- something already done informally.

Law enforcement departments are being enlisted to help collect data that validates the test. The police chief of Lompoc, California, announced his department's participation in a statement Tuesday and Lynn says he hopes to provide the technology to a half-dozen departments over the next six months.

After six months, Lynn hopes to widely distribute the device, for which his company will make inexpensive single-use cartridges filled with chemicals that "tag" tiny THC molecules to make them readable. An alcohol breathalyzer will be incorporated into the device to give it a competitive edge.

Hound Labs, of course, isn't the only company that sees an opening as U.S. states increasingly regulate sales of marijuana for recreational or medical use, but it is ahead of the curve, beating another company aiming to introduce a marijuana breathalyzer, Cannabix Technologies.

A spokesman for Cannabix referred U.S. News to its latest press release, indicating the British Columbia-based company as of late July was working to reduce the size of its device, which the company has worked on developing with the University of Florida.

Cannabix President Kal Malhi said in the release the company is "moving quickly" toward finishing the product and offering it for external testing. The spokesman did not respond to an email asking if there's a target date.

Though breathalyzers are familiar roadside tools, there are other options for officers looking to rapidly test a person for marijuana or other drugs, including increasingly accepted roadside oral fluid tests or -- potentially early next year -- a futuristic fingerprint-sweat test.

Dr. Paul Yates, a forensic scientist and business development director at U.K.-based Intelligent Fingerprinting, says the sweat-test devices -- which can be calibrated to specific thresholds for marijuana and other types of drugs including cocaine and opiates -- can indicate drug use in near-term windows.

The Intelligent Fingerprinting device, distributed in the U.S. by Smartox, likely will be available early next year, Yates says, after an ongoing validation process contrasting results against urine and oral fluid test results.

Early real-world testing will be done at drug rehab facilities where its accuracy could be verified by comparisons against volunteers' other test results, he says.

Duffy Nabors, vice president for sales and marketing at Smartox, says the company has received inquiries from law enforcement departments in California, Colorado and Texas interested in roadside use of the metabolite test, and he expects law enforcement will be among the first American buyers.

"We're not to that point yet, but we do have a significant stable of cities and counties that are interested in piloting and thus validating our product for roadside [driving under the influence of drugs] stops," Nabors says.

As with the emerging marijuana breathalyzers, the finger-sweat device will have to follow down a path already blazed by companies that offer roadside oral fluid testing devices to law enforcement.

Dräger, a Germany-based company that sells testing products including breathalyzers around the world, has been responsible for a million tests performed since 2009 with its DrugTest 5000 oral fluid antibody test, says North America bid and tender manager Brian Shaffer.

The DrugTest 5000 -- one of a handful of similar products -- indicates if marijuana or other types of drugs are present in a suspect's saliva. The company counts the New York Police Department, the Nevada Highway Patrol and Oklahoma tribal police among its customers.

Shaffer says the test detects THC in a user's saliva for roughly 2-6 hours after they consumed the drug, though a heavy user once tested positive 24 hours later. The test only indicates the presence of THC and does not quantify the amount, though like the Intelligent Fingerprinting technology can be calibrated to a specific threshold.

"The most difficult hurdle these companies are going to face is you need independent scientific research or vetting.... this is a price we've had to pay," Shaffer says. "These companies are going to have to follow the same hurdle as well."

Shaffer says his company's tool, while not giving a precise measurement, can be combined with a trained officer's observations to help justify an arrest, after which more samples can be taken for precise measurement, as often is the case with drunk-driving arrests.

"The scientific community is going to have a food fight for the next decade over how these [THC figures] relate to impairment," he says.

In the meantime, Shaffer says that courts are beginning to accept as scientifically valid his company's devices -- which like roadside alcohol breathalyzers generally are not used to prove intoxication in court. A California court earlier this year found the DrugTest 5000 was scientifically reliable in a vehicular manslaughter case and Shaffer says there may be a similar analysis on the East Coast in the near future.

Though courtroom validation is far off, Lynn says he believes breath testing ultimately will prove the most effective -- and fair -- way of showing whether someone recently has consumed cannabis.

"With breath it doesn't matter if you smoke every day, if you haven't smoked in several hours we are not going to pick it up, and it correlates with when people are most impaired," he says. "You get the inadvertent and really unfair arrest of people who test positive and aren't really impaired. What we're trying to do is balance public safety with fairness."

Steven Nelson is a reporter at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at snelson@usnews.com.