Last updated: October 2, 2023
The legalization of marijuana in some form at the state level continues its steady progression. 30 states and the District of Columbia now have laws making the use of medical marijuana legal. Nine of those states, again including the District of Columbia, also allow for recreational use. That’s what has law enforcement officials concerned over the potential impact of an increased pool of impaired drivers.
It’s been a struggle getting accurate statistics around marijuana use and road incidents since most sobriety tests aren’t calibrated to detect the presence of THC, the compound in marijuana with hallucinogenic effects. The idea of a marijuana breathalyzer was nothing more than a concept for many years.
The current state of marijuana detection in impaired drivers
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) conducted a survey in 2017 asking drivers how often they smoked marijuana before driving. An astounding 69% of respondents admitted they smoked the drug before driving at least once during the past year.
Other survey results uncovered
- All 69% were aware of the possibility of getting a DUI
- 40% of respondents using recreational marijuana users didn’t believe it affected driving
- 35% of non-users have ridden with drivers who were impaired
It can sometimes take days or weeks to receive results confirming whether someone had marijuana in their system at the time they were pulled over. Even if the results are positive, they shed little light on when the driver imbibed the drug. Marijuana remains in a person’s body for up to a month since it’s quickly absorbed into the body’s fat cells.
Police departments around the country continue looking for solutions on addressing the perceived threat of impaired driving from marijuana use. State Highway Safety Officers see opioid and marijuana use by drivers as equally, and sometimes more, dangerous than alcohol consumption.
Breakthroughs in the marijuana breathalyzer
The company Hound Labs made headlines in July of 2018 when they announced the successful creation of a breathalyzer designed to detect the presence of THC in drivers. While it can’t indicate just how much marijuana was used, it can tell officers whether a driver consumed the cannabis within the past two hours. The device also doubles as a standard alcohol breathalyzer.
Measuring THC using a regular breathalyzer has been difficult due to how much less concentrated the compound is in breath molecules than alcohol. Hound Labs claims they’ve discovered how to accurately measure the volume of THC in every trillion parts of breath molecules. Alcohol can be measured in thousands, which shows why it’s been so hard for the technology to make it to this point for THC.
Hound Labs did their own testing on drivers who smoked before driving under controlled conditions. They plan to work with a small number of police departments to determine how well the device works during regular working conditions. This could present a huge benefit for DOT drug testing.
The race for a solution
Other companies continue their own pursuit of a marijuana breathalyzer breakthrough. Canadian company Cannabix Technology has been working on its own version of such a device which they hope to bring to market at some point. Big investors hope to cash in on a tool they see eventually becoming as essential to law enforcement officers as alcohol breathalyzers.
The questions that remain
Many law enforcement officials have chosen to stand back and watch the progress being made by all companies. State attorneys must deal with laws that do very little to provide clarity on what the legal line is for determining someone was under the influence when THC is involved.
Only seven states in the country have statutes focused on determining what constitutes impairment in someone who smokes marijuana before driving. That’s further complicated by whether results from marijuana breathalyzers would be admissible in court. Who would set the standards for measuring the accuracy of such devices on the market?
A wait and see attitude
That’s why organizations like the California Highway Patrol (CHP) plan to focus on increasing training for troopers in initial detection of impaired driving. They’ll also learn more about determining the actual substance responsible for a driver being under the influence to improve reporting around the dangers of using marijuana before getting behind the wheel.
Still, many would welcome such a tool to aid their efforts. They’re hopeful that something on the market will help lead to a decrease in incidents involving drivers using cannabis or any other illegal substance. The goal is making the roads and highways safe for everyone to use.