During an on-stage interview at a recent tech startup conference, TechCrunch Editor-At-Large Josh Constine poked fun at Mike Lynn, co-founder and CEO of Hound Labs, about his startup’s development of the world’s first reliable marijuana breathalyzer.
“Why are you such a narc?” Constine asked.
Both Lynn and the audience laughed before Lynn answered Constine’s question by aptly pointing out that there is, in fact, an actual need for such a device.
“What we really try to do at Hound Labs is really be fair, to balance public safety and fairness because we need to have a standard,” he said. “We don’t want people going around stoned behind the wheel, just like you can’t drive drunk. But, at the same time, you don’t want to start firing people or arresting people who aren’t impaired.”
With medical marijuana still illegal in more than 20 states and recreational pot illegal in more than 40 — as well as the fact that marijuana of any kind is still technically illegal at the federal level — the cannabis industry still has quite a ways to go when it comes to respectability. It might be funny to joke that companies like Hound Labs are trying to ruin everybody’s buzz, but the fact of the matter is that advocates of responsible use could actually take the booming cannabis industry to even greater highs.
While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says fewer people are driving after drinking these days, more are driving with marijuana in their bloodstream than any other illegal drug. In Texas, for example, there were nearly 170 traffic accidents in 2012 where the driver tested positive for marijuana. That number jumped to 300 last year.
But even if a driver tests positive for marijuana, it doesn’t mean he or she was impaired at the time of the accident. Unlike with alcohol, there is no national standard for intoxication from marijuana. And even if there was, according to Alex Berezow, a senior fellow at the American Council on Science and Health, blood and urine tests aren’t sensitive enough to show whether someone used pot five minutes or five days ago, and the first few hours after smoking pot is when someone will most likely be too impaired to drive.
“The problem is really figuring out who is actually stoned — shouldn't be behind the wheel or in the cockpit of an airplane, or in an operating room in the hospital — versus who has THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — just floating around in their system,” says Lynn.
If someone is stopped for drunk driving, police can whip out a breathalyzer and test the driver on the spot. No such marijuana breathalyzer exists to test for pot. Well, not yet, anyway.
Hound Labs and another Canadian firm, Cannabix Technologies, are developing small handheld devices that people can blow into, similar to the breathalyzers used to detect drunken drivers. Police and employers will be able to use the devices to detect and analyze the amount of THC in someone’s system in minutes.
Berezow says that whichever company “gets to market first and can reliably and quickly and easily show a product that a police officer can use on the side of the road is going to have a very substantial market advantage.”
And he’s right. As the cannabis industry grows, so will the opportunities for cannabis-related businesses.
But the development of an effective marijuana breathalyzer is bigger than that. Not only will it help save people from needless hassles, it will, quite literally, help save people.
If a few folks shout “narc!” in the process, then so be it.