LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Companies hawk breathalyzer-like devices for roadside marijuana testing

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Legalized marijuana may not be coming to New Jersey anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that officials aren’t worried about increasing numbers of high drivers that are already compromising road safety.

With that concern in mind, companies are developing various versions of a device that can fill a void in the law-enforcement arsenal to combat toking while driving — something that can be used road-side to determine in real time whether a driver is impaired.

Questions about highway safety were among the factors that played a role this week in derailing the effort to legalize recreational pot though legislation, prompting leading lawmakers instead to put the question of legalization before the voters next November. Meanwhile, statistics show road fatalities involving cannabis in New Jersey more than tripled, from 6% in 2007 to 19% in 2016.

“There certainly is a concern about being able to effectively dissuade people from smoking and driving,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a Monmouth County Republican who opposed the legalization bill. “There is not a real effective way at this point to instantly and easily assess whether someone is under the influence of cannabis.”

Hound Labs of California is one of the companies working on a possible solution. Its “Hound Breathalyzer” is a device that works like alcohol breath sensors for cannabis, with the ability to detect in real time whether someone has recently smoked marijuana by measuring minute amounts of THC in the lungs.  That’s important, because the compound — the psycho-active substance in cannabis — can linger in the body for weeks, so the blood tests that are used now are both slow and do not provide information that pinpoints whether a driver is actively intoxicated while driving.

“We don’t want to know what you did a week ago, or two weeks ago, because it doesn’t impact your impairment today,” said Warren Tolman, director of business development for Hound Labs. “You’re basically impaired two to three hours after the use of marijuana. And what we’ve found is our device tracks the recent use of marijuana in that same two- to three-hour period.”

The company says the device can be used by law enforcement or in the workplace, and that clinical trials show it to be accurate to parts per trillion.

“So, we’ll pick up that recent use,” said Tolman of the device, which costs $5,000. “If somebody did something that’s obviously legal — on their own time, away from work, not on the roads, whatever — then so be it.”

Currently, in the absence of fast lab tests, New Jersey law enforcement agencies rely on specialized police officers called DREs — Drug Recognition Experts — who get hours of training to detect drug impairment at a traffic stop.

The company wants to market the device to law enforcement for side-of-the-road assessments, but police are taking a cautious view.

“Can it be useful? Maybe it can be,” said Sgt. Michael Kelly of the Jackson Police Department, the incoming president of the state Association of Drug Recognition Experts. “But, like I said, for the officer, we rely heavily on psycho-physical tests to determine the impairment. So, if it just shows the presence of a drug, okay, it shows there’s a presence of something. But, we’re more concerned about the impairment of the person.”

Others are at work on similar devices, including a group at the University of Pittsburgh and a Canadian firm called Cannabix Technologies of Vancouver in British Columbia.

Legalization proponents say such devices could remove a level of subjectivity that might creep into police stops, and also eliminate an argument against legalization.

“This allows some objectivity to it,” said Bill Caruso, a partner at the Archer & Greiner PC and a member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “Also, it allows for an answer to people that’ve been critics of legalization saying it’d leave our roads unsafe because we won’t be able to test.”

Some drivers, though, were not so sure.

“I’m not into legalizing marijuana,” said motorist Ron Zangrando. “There’s enough idiots on the road. Believe me, I see it all day long.”