As support for marijuana legalization grows across the country, police departments are looking for new ways to detect if drivers are under the influence of the drug.

The 2015 report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area–a program run by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy–found that in 2014, the year that Colorado opened retail marijuana stores for adult recreational use, pot-related traffic fatalities shot up by 32 percent. Additionally, traffic deaths involving drivers testing positive for marijuana jumped to more than 19 percent of crashes, a 10 percent increase from 2009.

This report may be particularly important for the state of California. This November, California residents will vote on Proposition 64 and decide whether the state should legalize possession and sales of marijuana for recreational use. If marijuana becomes legalized, residents and police want to know if it’ll make the roads more dangerous and how police can help curb impaired driving.

Enter Oakland, Calif.-based Hound Labs, which has developed a dual alcohol and marijuana breath analyzer. The device works by detecting tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on someone’s breath. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Because THC can linger in someone’s system, previously it’s been difficult to determine whether someone recently smoked or ingested marijuana or if they consumed multiple days ago. However, the Hound Labs test works differently.

“It only picks up people who have smoked in the last two to three hours. You can smoke all day long, all week long, but if you haven’t smoked for a few hours, it’s not going to be in your breath anymore, and you are probably not impaired at that point,” Mike Lynn, CEO of Hound Labs, told KFSN-TV Fresno.

California police recently began a pilot program for the device. As a part of an initial field test, drivers that were pulled over due to concerns about their driving were asked to voluntarily blow into the marijuana breath analyzer developed by Hound Labs. While no one who tested positive was arrested–they were only required to not continue driving–it is an important step for police to curb impaired driving.

“There’s limited knowledge and awareness of the dangers of marijuana use and driving and some groups have even suggested that marijuana has no impact on driving,” said Lynn. “This belief defies common sense. Marijuana is a mind-altering drug. As a society, do we want our pilots flying planes after smoking a joint? Or our surgeons eating a pot brownie before operating on a patient? Of course we don’t–for the very same reasons we don’t want people under the influence of marijuana driving next to us on our local roads and busy freeways. As an ER physician and reserve deputy sheriff, I’ve witnessed the consequences of impaired driving. It’s highly preventable.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs