Companies are Racing to Build "Billion Times More Sensitive" Breathalyzer for Weed

Traditional alcohol breathalyzers have been in use since the 50s.
Chris Young

THC intoxication is a serious danger on the roads. While marijuana likely impairs drivers less than alcohol, it has still been the cause of numerous fatalities.

That's why several companies and researchers are looking to create a functioning marijuana breathalyzer that can measure THC intoxication in drivers.

The trouble is that marijuana levels are much less detectable in our breaths than alcohol.


Legalization and fatalities

In a relatively short amount of time, we have seen marijuana use go from being uniformly illegal throughout the U.S. to becoming legal, in various capacities, in 33 states.

While that has great implications for people who depend on it for medical uses or those that enjoy it recreationally, road fatalities caused by THC intoxication spiked after legalization in some states.

While the statistics are far from conclusive on the overall dangers of legalization, it is clear that there needs to be a way for the police to detect intoxicated drivers.

The difficulties of THC detection

Alcohol intoxication breathalyzer kits have been standard issue for police officers since they first came into use in the 50s. They allow for easy measurement of intoxication levels - a driver blows into a tube.

Testing for marijuana is a little more complicated. Typical tests require blood, urine, or hair samples, and results usually show whether THC is in the system, not the current intoxication levels.

Companies are Racing to Build "Billion Times More Sensitive" Breathalyzer for Weed
Source: skodonnell/iStock

A breathalyzer test might be able to solve this issue, but it also comes with its challenges. 

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“The fundamental challenge is that THC exists in breath in concentrations that are something like a billion times less than alcohol,” Dr. Mike Lynn, CEO of the startup Hound Lab, explained to Digital Trends.

“That means you need a breathalyzer that’s literally a billion times more sensitive if you’re going to use it for marijuana. It’s like identifying 25 or 30 specific grains of sand on a beach that’s well over a mile long. That’s a pretty tough scientific [problem to solve].”

Existing 'drugalyzers'

Hound Labs, in fact, has made a weed breathalyzer. The venture-backed company recently raised $30 million and released a study showing how their device can work.

The study claims the device can detect if a user has smoked marijuana very recently and if they are in the peak impairment window that lasts 2 or 3 hours after smoking.

Hound Labs is in the process of commercializing its product.

Companies are Racing to Build "Billion Times More Sensitive" Breathalyzer for Weed
Hound Labs is the closest to bringing its product to the market. Source: Hound Labs

A Canadian startup called SannTek Labs has also recently received Y Combinator backing to develop a similar device, though it is a little further from reaching the market. 

Recently, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh also unveiled their take on the marijuana breathalyzerTheir device contains carbon nanotubes thousands of times smaller than a human hair that help identify THC molecules when a user breathes into a tube.

While progress is undoubtedly being made, one big hurdle remains.

As Vice points out, there is no real standard for what constitutes weed intoxication. These devices won't likely be used by the police for some time yet.

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