While many cannabis advocates may roll their eyes at any conversation about driving while high and how police around the country are very concerned that with marijuana legalization spreading so has the rate of drugged driving, it is still a very real concern. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association report published in May of 2018, the rate of people driving while high and fatalities due to drugged driving have climbed significantly in the last ten years. The report suggests that highway officers think that drugged driving is as serious of a concern as people driving under the influence of alcohol, perhaps even more so.
The challenge authorities have faced is having a roadside test that can be administered and accurately determine whether the driver is under the psychoactive influence of THC. Unlike alcohol, cannabinoids like THC stay in our system for a month or more as they can dissolve into fatty tissue, but only stay active for a couple of hours after they are consumed. The body metabolizes alcohol much quicker than THC and alcohol is found in much greater abundance in the breath than THC. In other words, blood, urine and hair tests can show positive for THC in a person’s system but that does not necessarily mean the driver was actually driving while high.
To go into more detail, an alcohol breathalyzer only has to measure alcohol in the breath in parts per thousand due to the abundance of it found in the breath after someone has been drinking. Since the body metabolizes alcohol quickly, a positive Blood Alcohol Level or BAC of .08% or more shows authorities that the driver only recently drank alcohol and is too intoxicated to drive. However, THC does not show up in the breath at anywhere close to the levels of alcohol and requires a tool that can measure its presence in parts per trillion according to Mike Lynn, the CEO and founder of Hound Labs. Lynn believes his company has developed the technology to make that measurement. According to Lynn during an NPR interview, “THC is something like a billion times less concentrated than alcohol.” The new technology even doubles as an alcohol breathalyzer as well.
Lynn is sure that if his company’s equipment detects THC in a driver’s system that they must have ingested cannabis within the last couple of hours which means they are likely under the psychoactive effects of marijuana. It was simply a matter of time before engineers designed at breathalyzer test to indicate whether someone is driving while high, but does it answer all of the questions? Many cannabis advocates believe that driving under the influence of cannabis is not as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. Studies by police have not yet been able to accurately measure just how impaired a driver is while behind the wheel. If it is true that driving under the influence of marijuana does not impair a driver as much as alcohol, then should the legal repercussions be as severe as they are for drunk driving?
Many of the statistics coming out of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association that show the amount of car crashes where marijuana consumption was involved has increased also involve a demographic that has the largest rate of car accidents in the first place, young men. Young men consume more cannabis than any other demographic and are the most reckless drivers on the road. Authorities did not even really start testing for THC until about a decade ago. If Hound Labs has really uncovered the secret behind creating a technology that can determine whether someone is driving high, that is step in the right direction rather than relying on field sobriety tests like they will use in Canada as of now. But, authorities still need to better understand how impaired a driver is by consuming cannabis rather than attaching it directly to the severity of driving under the influence of alcohol. Until then, law suits will continue to weigh financially on states for what is still a very gray area. In the meantime, cities around the country are embracing the new breathalyzer created by Hound Labs, including Boston, Massachusetts, a city and state that just legalized adult-use cannabis on July 1st, 2018.