California has always been the pacesetter on marijuana. Twenty years ago, the state passed the nation’s first medical marijuana law. This year, Californians voted to legalize recreational use, the single most important domino to fall in the march toward legalization.
As an emergency room physician in Oakland, I’ve spent too many nights trying desperately to patch together victims of alcohol- and drug-impaired drivers. I’ve had to deliver the terrible news to families when loved ones have been killed or seriously injured.
Stoned driving kills. Several studies demonstrate that drivers on drugs lose reaction time and focus. Now that marijuana is legal, the problem will get worse. More people will use marijuana and drive high and the number of collisions will increase. After Washington legalized marijuana, the state’s marijuana-related fatal accidents nearly doubled.
I’ve decided to do more than treat victims. With a team of scientists from UC Berkeley, I’ve invented a marijuana breathalyzer, the first device that can reliably measure the precise amount of active THC (the active ingredient in pot) during roadside stops. My goal is to create an objective standard of marijuana impairment, just like the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol standard we use to enforce drunken driving laws.
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Our device measures THC in the breath, where it remains for two to three hours after smoking pot, the window of time during which impairment can occur. This is critical because THC stays in the body for days and even weeks after consumption. That means the key to any test is that it measures THC after recent use when it may be causing impairment.
Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies are increasingly employing flawed technologies, such as those that test saliva for the presence of THC. These tests detect THC long after a person has consumed marijuana, but are not effective measures of impairment. Such tests raise the specter of false positive results and the wrongful prosecution of innocent marijuana users.
Now that we have a tool to measure the level of active THC in a person at the roadside, we must invest in the research needed to correlate THC concentrations with impairment. Skeptics say that setting an objective standard for marijuana impairment is a pipe dream because marijuana affects everyone differently.
Well, alcohol affects people differently, too. They say the science is too hard and that our only choice is to do what we do now – leave it up to cops to judge whether someone is too stoned to drive or rely on flawed tests of blood and saliva.
Those same skeptics said we couldn’t create a device that could measure THC in breath. We proved the doubters wrong then, and we will prove them wrong now. Our lives depend on it.
Mike Lynn, an emergency room physician in Oakland, is CEO of Hound Labs, a scientific device company that developed the THC breathalyzer, and co-founder of the Hound Foundation, which educates on the dangers of marijuana-impaired driving. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.