Using proprietary science and technology, Hound Labs, Inc. is the 1st company to isolate and measure THC in breath in parts per trillion.
DETECTING THC: A DIFFICULT SCIENTIFIC CHALLENGE
Measuring marijuana isn’t a simple extension of the technology in current alcohol breathalyzers. The approach used in an alcohol breathalyzer won’t detect THC molecules in breath because THC requires a new scientific method more than a million times more sensitive than those used to measure alcohol. Until now, only very large, expensive, and specialized detection tools – liquid chromatography mass spectrometers – could detect THC in breath in parts per trillion. Liquid chromatography mass spectrometers generally aren’t portable, and portability will always be an issue because the science and technology on which they’re built can’t be miniaturized in an inexpensive way while maintaining accuracy and precision.
We argue that it really hasn’t been addressed because prior to the Hound® scientific breakthrough, it generally took dozens of breaths to gather enough THC to accurately detect it. And no portable device has been able to measure the actual levels of THC, which is critical to developing standards for breath that ultimately correlate with impairment. Because measuring THC in breath wasn’t possible before our scientific breakthrough, law enforcement and employers relied on saliva, urine, and blood tests. The critical failure of these methods is that they don’t distinguish recent pot use from the marijuana users may have smoked yesterday or last week. Research indicates that people are most impaired only within a couple of hours of smoking marijuana, not days later.
OUR PROPRIETARY SCIENCE: DEVELOPED SPECIFICALLY TO MEASURE THC IN BREATH
Using cutting-edge science and technology, Hound Labs can detect and measure THC in breath. Using only a few breaths, our patent-pending science and technology detects THC and through an extraction process, measures THC to levels well below 500 picograms (parts per trillion) in just minutes.
Once we’ve captured a sufficient breath sample with our patented breath capture module, the Hound® prototype performs an automated process to analyze the breath sample. The device is programmed to perform a series of automated routines that first chemically isolate the THC molecules from the captured breath sample and then generate a composition for measurement, all of which happens within a single-use, disposable cartridge. The automated process then triggers a measurement mechanism to optically measure the THC level in the generated composition, outputting a measurement value in picograms (parts per trillion) on the display. The resulting measurement value corresponds to the level of THC present in the captured breath sample at the time of the breath sample collection.
THE PROTOTYPE: PIONEERING MEASUREMENT
The Hound® breathalyzer is fundamentally different because Hound Labs, Inc. developed a robust proprietary technology specifically for detecting and measuring THC in breath. As we understand from available public information, other companies are trying to adapt an existing detection technology instead of developing a new approach explicitly designed for measuring THC in breath. Dr. Lynn, co-founder Kuni Oh, an electrical engineer and patent attorney, and their colleague Dr. Dan Fletcher, Chairman of the Department of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, evaluated multiple scientific approaches, including the one currently used by both competitors. They determined that the ideal way to detect and measure THC in breath was to develop a new scientific approach involving sophisticated chemistry and engineering.
The technology includes several industry-leading capabilities: Measurement in parts per trillion. Unlike our competition, which – to our knowledge – can only detect THC in breath, we actually detect and measure it in parts per trillion (picograms). Measuring THC in breath is important for the same reasons measuring alcohol in breath is important: levels can be correlated with actual driving impairment and future legislation can reflect actual driving impairment rather than just the presence of THC in bodily fluids, which often doesn’t correlate with impairment. To put it another way, what if an alcohol breathalyzer only determined that alcohol was present in breath, not the actual level? That device wouldn’t do much good at the roadside. It’s similar for a THC breathalyzer – it needs to measure the actual level of THC.
Measurement of both smoked marijuana and edibles. In addition to measuring smoked marijuana, we can also measure if someone has consumed edible marijuana. This capability is truly groundbreaking because until now, no one has been able to measure both types of use in breath.
Marijuana and alcohol measurement. The Hound® breathalyzer will be able to detect both marijuana and alcohol, which makes it easy for law enforcement to use. It also ensures that drivers are subjected to the least-invasive breath measurement method at the roadside.
For the last 6 months, we’ve been testing human subjects and conducting rigorous testing in our engineering lab. We validate results from the Hound® breathalyzer with the gold standard for forensic laboratory analysis: the liquid chromatography mass spectrometry. Such a tool can cost up to $1 million and is exceptionally accurate. Our results correlate with comparable readings from a mass spectrometer. We will continue our exhaustive testing both in the lab, with human subjects in a controlled environment, and in the field, with drivers and law enforcement. UCSF will also conduct clinical trials using our device when the final version of the prototype is ready.
LAW ENFORCEMENT TESTING: CRITICAL TO DEVELOPING A USEFUL PRODUCT
We have been testing the Hound® breathalyzer for several months and have verified it functions well in the field and that law enforcement officers can easily capture breath from suspected drivers. We want to test in real situations so we can gather feedback from law enforcement about the prototype’s performance. After all, the primary reason Hounds Labs created a marijuana breathalyzer is to reduce injuries and death caused by stoned driving. To do that, we have to be in the field, getting feedback directly from our law enforcement partners. Dr. Lynn knew the key to reducing the tragedies caused by marijuana-impaired driving depended on being able to quickly, inexpensively, and accurately measure the actual amount of THC in breath, the way we currently do on the roadside with alcohol. At the same time, he wanted to be sure unimpaired drivers with residual THC in their bodies weren’t unfairly arrested. The only way to do so is to detect and measure THC in breath, where it only stays a short time, and then correlate these levels with impairment, just as we do with alcohol.
We are working with multiple law enforcement agencies, but some have asked for confidentiality at this point. Because Dr. Lynn is a reserve deputy sheriff with Alameda County, however, he is always receiving feedback from colleagues and has been able to incorporate their ideas as the prototype has evolved. Right now, there are far more law enforcement agencies interested in testing our prototype than we can support. We will be doing larger pilot programs with select agencies later in 2016, and if it’s mutually agreeable, we’ll announce some of our other testing partners at that time. In the interim, we are consulting with law enforcement agencies around the country about feature sets and device specifications.
We had a couple key learnings. The most important feedback is that the device needs be rugged to meet the needs of a demanding environment, and we’ve already started tackling that challenge. Another learning has been the excitement officers have shown in testing the device. These officers are on the frontlines and desperately want a device that objectively measures THC levels and provides the data to inform the decisions they need to make quickly at the roadside.
MEASUREMENT IN BREATH: THE ONLY ROADSIDE ALTERNATIVE
These aren’t viable solutions for law enforcement at the roadside and they simply don’t provide accurate information on current impairment. Although measuring THC in blood, urine, or saliva is relatively easy, this type of testing doesn’t distinguish recent use from chronic use. Frequent marijuana users will have elevated levels of THC in blood, urine, and saliva even if they haven’t smoked in days and thus aren’t likely to be impaired. THC in breath, however, corresponds very closely to smoking marijuana within the last 2 hours. This scientific discovery underlies the advantage of using breath to determine THC levels and demonstrate recent use. Until now, no portable unit has been able to consistently measure THC in breath because of the tremendous analytical challenge of detecting THC at such low levels. To learn more about the reasons for breath testing for THC instead of saliva testing, read this explanation from Dr. Cornfield, MD, Stanford University.
Dr. Lynn knew the key to reducing the tragedies caused by marijuana-impaired driving depended on being able to quickly, inexpensively, and accurately measure the actual amount of THC in breath, the way we currently do on the roadside with alcohol. At the same time, he wanted to be sure unimpaired drivers with residual THC in their bodies weren’t unfairly arrested. The only way to do so is to detect and measure THC in breath, where it only stays a short time, and then correlate these levels with impairment, just as we do with alcohol.
Detecting and measuring THC in breath provides data on recent marijuana use that can be correlated with driving impairment. Data from the Hound® breathalyzer will allow states to determine impairment standards (similar to the .08 alcohol standards), enable enforcement of marijuana DUIs, raise public awareness, and provide education around marijuana impairment.
AN INCREASING PROBLEM: MARIJUANA-IMPAIRED DRIVING
The bottom line is that it’s difficult to determine and people should not drive after they’ve recently smoked or eaten marijuana. One of the biggest problems facing drivers is that the amount of THC in marijuana has increased dramatically. In the 1960s, THC levels in typical joints were ~3% and today levels can be more than 30% (and far higher for edibles), resulting in much greater impairment. In stark contrast to alcohol, marijuana is largely unregulated, so users generally don’t have an accurate understanding of how strong their marijuana is and can’t easily predict the amount of THC they’ve smoked. Imagine not knowing whether your 12-ounce drink is 4% alcohol (as in a beer) or 40% alcohol (as in a martini); it would be dangerous to consume an unknown amount of alcohol and simply guess whether you’re too impaired to drive legally. Yet that is exactly what marijuana users must do because they can’t easily estimate their THC levels and are unable to accurately predict if they’re driving impaired. In the future, we’ll develop a consumer product that will let marijuana users measure their breath THC concentration. Dr. Lynn knew the key to reducing the tragedies caused by marijuana-impaired driving depended on being able to quickly, inexpensively, and accurately measure the actual amount of THC in breath, the way we currently do on the roadside with alcohol. At the same time, he wanted to be sure unimpaired drivers with residual THC in their bodies weren’t unfairly arrested. The only way to do so is to detect and measure THC in breath, where it only stays a short time, and then correlate these levels with impairment, just as we do with alcohol.
This breakthrough transforms the ability of law enforcement to remove marijuana-impaired drivers from the road by detecting and measuring THC levels quickly and accurately. Doing so will enable them to enforce the current laws about impaired driving for marijuana. At the same time, our technology will ensure that unimpaired individuals who may have THC in their saliva or blood because of previous use aren’t unfairly arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana.
LEGISLATION: IT’S ABOUT SAFETY AND FAIRNESS
For many voters and legislators, the fundamental roadblock to legalization of marijuana – across the country and at the Federal level – is the concern about impaired driving. In states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, there has been an increase in fatalities associated with marijuana use. If we listen objectively to law enforcement, this development isn’t surprising: Legalization of marijuana – whether medical or recreational – leads to more stoned drivers and more death on the roads. This is just common sense.
The November ballot initiatives come too soon for us to have an impact on them because we don’t yet have a breathalyzer available for widespread use. Twenty-six states have already legalized marijuana in some form, so regardless of November’s ballot initiatives, the problem of stoned driving is here to stay. We believe the Hound® breathalyzer will enable law enforcement officers to objectively determine the level of recent marijuana use at the roadside. This device fundamentally changes law enforcement’s ability to determine which drivers are stoned and prevents the wrongful arrest of drivers who simply have residual THC in their saliva or blood. Ultimately, our goal – through education as well as the use of our breathalyzer – is to reduce injuries and deaths from stoned driving.
We don’t take a stance on marijuana legalization. Our focus is on developing the tools law enforcement needs to accurately measure marijuana levels and get impaired drivers off the road. Given that more than 120 million people in the U.S. now have legal access to marijuana and at least 11 states are considering legalization of recreational or medical marijuana in 2016, there’s already a critical need for tools to remove impaired drivers from the road. We do, however, take a stance on driving under the influence of marijuana: Just don’t do it.
Across the country, law enforcement officers currently deal with the dangers presented by marijuana-impaired drivers. They know that drivers are impaired, but don’t have the tools to provide objective measurements of the THC present in breath from marijuana use a few hours prior to driving. Saliva and blood testing provide results that don’t distinguish between use hours or days earlier, and therefore can’t be correlated with actual impairment. Without the objective tools to support field sobriety tests and observations, most drivers under the influence of marijuana go undetected and aren’t removed from the road.
Our device enables the measurement of THC in breath and will, for the first time, deliver objective data that can be correlated with actual impairment. These measurements provide additional information to law enforcement at the roadside, so they can make informed decisions about drivers under the influence of recent marijuana use. Law enforcement agencies across the country will finally have access to an affordable and portable roadside tool – the Hound® breathalyzer. Widespread use of the Hound Labs, Inc. device will enable the collection of large amounts of data to inform the development of effective legislation that identifies drivers who are actually impaired from marijuana based on correlated levels of THC in breath. Current legislative efforts that use data from roadside saliva and blood tests usually run into opposition because these methods detect residual THC from use days or even weeks prior to the actual roadside test administered by law enforcement. There is just too much risk of wrongful arrests with this approach.
How long it will take is difficult to predict because each state may take a different approach to legislation. Fortunately, we can look at the development of alcohol driving standards as a model. The current DUI standard for alcohol of .08 took years to develop, but law enforcement used the original alcohol roadside breathalyzers as soon as they became affordable to remove impaired drivers from the road. Initial alcohol breathalyzers helped identify and remove impaired drivers under existing laws. They also provided objective data on measured levels of breath alcohol that correlated with actual driving impairment and resulted in new legislation (per se laws – or .08 – in all 50 states) that dramatically reduced drunk driving injuries and deaths. Because the Hound® marijuana breathalyzer measures the amount of THC in breath, law enforcement can use our device immediately at the roadside to identify stoned drivers and enforce existing laws prohibiting driving under the influence of marijuana. The Hound® breathalyzer will also enable data collection of measured breath levels that will ultimately lead to per se laws based on driving impairment. To read more about what we can learn from our experience developing DUI driving standards for alcohol, read this interview with Retired California Highway Patrol (CHP) Commissioner, Spike Helmick.
The Supreme Court’s June 2016 decision increases the importance of accurate and reliable breath measurement at the roadside. The decision reaffirmed that breath analysis is noninvasive and respects a driver’s privacy, whereas other methods, such as blood analysis, were determined to be invasive and will now require a search warrant. Given the inherent invasiveness of saliva and urine testing, collection of these body fluids is likely to be viewed similarly to blood by the Court.
From a law enforcement officer’s perspective, there are going to be instances when they can’t obtain a search warrant in a timely manner, which will potentially impact their ability to prosecute alcohol DUIs. On a practical level, breath measurement likely will become even more important, and most cops prefer it. Most people would also rather breathe into a small tube than be forced to let someone retrieve their saliva, draw their blood, or collect their urine. Blood isn’t an ideal test for confirming marijuana impairment, so the impact of the Supreme Court ruling will be different on drivers who are impaired from marijuana versus alcohol.
MORE ABOUT HOUND LABS: SAFETY MEASURES
Mike Lynn, MD, founded Hound Labs, Inc. because he passionately believes the tragedies associated with impaired driving are preventable. As an ER physician and reserve deputy sheriff, Dr. Lynn has witnessed the consequences of impaired driving firsthand. The issue of marijuana-impaired driving is compounded by the fact that there’s no device on the market today that accurately detects and measures recent marijuana use. No portable device has been able to consistently measure THC in breath because of the tremendous analytical challenge in measuring THC at such low levels.
Dr. Lynn knew the key to reducing the tragedies caused by marijuana-impaired driving depended on being able to quickly, inexpensively, and accurately measure the actual amount of THC in breath, the way we currently do on the roadside with alcohol. At the same time, he believes in the fundamental issue of fairness: Unimpaired drivers with residual THC in their bodies shouldn’t be arrested when they’re not impaired. The only way to balance public safety with fairness is to detect and measure THC in breath, where it only remains a short time, and then correlate these levels with impairment – exactly the way we currently do with alcohol.
About Hound Labs, Inc.
Hound Labs, Inc. is a scientific device company that developed the first technology to rapidly, accurately, and inexpensively detect and measure the levels of both marijuana and alcohol in a person’s breath. Dr. Mike Lynn, an ER physician, reserve deputy sheriff, and former venture capitalist and Mr. Kuni Oh, a patent attorney with deep technical background in engineering and science co-founded the Oakland-based company in 2014.
Learn about the Hound Foundation.