Campus team works on research for marijuana-detecting breathalyzers

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Campus researchers contributed to the research of a portable cannabis breathalyzer, which can be used by law enforcement to detect marijuana intoxication in drivers.

Marijuana drug testing has used methods that show the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, but not necessarily its concentration. But Hound Labs Inc., in collaboration with UC Berkeley researchers, hopes to improve the process of detecting impairment with the invention of the portable breathalyzer.

“The problem is that THC stays in your system for hours or days,” said Mike Lynn, co-founder and CEO of Hound Labs. Lynn’s background as a practicing physician, venture capitalist and reserve deputy sheriff led him to look into whether a system exists to measure THC impairment, which lasts just hours.

Because THC is more than a million times more dilute than alcohol, researchers developed a method to chemically tag THC and then detect it, said Matt Francis, executive associate dean of the campus’s chemistry department and member of the Hound Labs team. Three campus postdoctoral students in Francis’ research group worked intensively on the breathalyzer for six months, but the idea was conceived about two years before, according to Lynn.

The researchers will continue to work on standardizing the criteria of the impairment level with the breathalyzer’s readings by looking at blood and psychological states, according to Francis.

The device has attracted national attention and is particularly attractive to local law enforcement and state legislators.

“The development of these types of devices are critical as California looks toward legalizing recreational marijuana on the ballot,” said Tim Townsend, capitol director for the office of Assemblymember Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale. Lackey co-authored Assembly Bill 266 — signed into law in October — which regulates licensing rules for medical marijuana growers.

The effectiveness of the device depends on its accuracy and speed of giving results, according to Lauren Michaels, legislative affairs manager for the California Police Chiefs Association.

“We’ve had difficulties in this area for getting prosecution for people who are driving impaired who are hazardous to the community for (being) under influence of marijuana,” said Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern. “This device will allow us to give some measure of intoxication to a driver of a motor vehicle to show that they’re impaired or not impaired.”

Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, an organization that works to reform marijuana laws, expressed skepticism about the device’s functionality.

“There’s no relationship between the chemicals that you measure and actual impairment — it depends on how much marijuana is in the brain,” Gieringer said, citing that cannabinoid receptors are what make marijuana psychoactive.

The device will begin testing by UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital in the first quarter of 2016, according to Lynn, who said he hopes the device will be available by June 2016.

Contact Pamela Larson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @PamReporting.