Why marijuana breathalyzer is key to recreational legislation in New York

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A new marijuana breathalyzer that detects motorists smoking pot is poised for release as New York considers legalizing recreational weed.

The breakthrough law enforcement device could address major concerns about drugged driving under review in New York, where a high-profile state Health Department study recommended legalizing the drug here.

Pot legalization's impact on public safety remained a key issue for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who recently tapped a diverse task force to draft recreational marijuana legislation to present to lawmakers.

“As we work to implement the report's recommendations through legislation, we must thoroughly consider all aspects of a regulated marijuana program,” Cuomo said, “including its impact on public health, criminal justice and state revenue, and mitigate any potential risks associated with it.”

One crucial risk factor is the gaps in law enforcement’s ability to accurately and fairly test drivers for marijuana use, New York’s study found.

Yet with recreational weed now legal in nine states, California-based Hound Labs has created a marijuana-breathalyzer it says will make roads safer and hold drivers accountable, the USA Today Network reported.

The company claims the device is hypersensitive, allowing it to pick up any THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — present on a driver's breath.

"The Hound breathalyzer is 1 billion times more sensitive than today’s alcohol breathalyzers," the company says on its site.

Currently, officers who suspect a driver is impaired can only test the hunch with field sobriety tests. Blood, breath or urine samples could be taken to determine if a driver is high, but such tests can be inaccurate. Those tests also detect if the driver was high that day or week, rather than if they were high while operating the vehicle in that instance.

Hound Labs plans to begin rolling out its breathalyzer in the fall. It is one of several companies racing to market with various drugged-driving detection technology.

To understand the severity of the problem, The Journal News/lohud and the USA Today Network reviewed the marijuana traffic data used by New York health officials and other states.

Among the findings:

  • Marijuana cases made up about 15 percent of driving-while-intoxicated arrests in Washington state six months prior to legalization, and increased to 21 percent afterward.
  • Almost 70 percent of cannabis consumers in Colorado drove high at least once in the past year, and 27 percent said they drive high almost every day.
  • In New York, 26 percent of all fatal traffic accidents statewide in 2016 were drug-related, up from 18 percent in 2014. The crash data reflected all types of drugs and didn’t isolate marijuana use.
  • Drug-related fatal and personal-injury crashes in New York state increased 20 percent between 2012 and 2016.
  • Less than 1 percent of all fatal and personal-injury crashes each year in New York involved drugs.

If marijuana is legalized for recreational use in New York, some of the plans to combat drugged driving included improved public outreach about drugged-driving dangers and training for law enforcement.

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“While existing information suggests a lower impact than might have been expected, legalization of adult use of marijuana raises valid concerns about traffic safety,” the state Health Department said.

New York's government study cited many sources, including SUNY Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research.

The breathalyzer wars

Hound Labs' alcohol-and-marijuana breathalyzer or Canadian company Cannabix Technologies's THC breathalyzer aim to present an objective determination of recent marijuana use rather than one based on an officers' judgment or an intrusive test.

Drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration above 0.08 percent are considered intoxicated. But what exactly qualifies a driver under the influence of marijuana as "impaired" is up for debate in the science community, the USA TODAY Network reported.

For Hound Labs' breathalyzers, that qualification is marked by timing. Though the company's breathalyzers can determine how much marijuana is in someone's breath, the actual level of THC is not as relevant as recency of use for determining whether an individual is high, according to its research. 

THC only stays in breath during the "peak window of impairment," about one to two hours after smoking marijuana, according to Hound Labs. The level of THC found in breath samples drops to zero three hours after smoking, the company's research found. 

When an individual blows into the breathalyzer, it can determine within a couple of minutes whether there is alcohol, THC or both in the person's system. Since THC is only present in someone's breath during that peak two-hour window, the driver is considered impaired when it's detected.

National stats show problem

New York health officials noted the National Roadside Survey conducted at 60 sites around the country found that THC was by far the most prevalent drug detected in its sample of drivers.

In 2007, the survey found that 8.6 percent of drivers tested positive for THC. It increased to 12.6 percent by 2014.

Meanwhile, the percentage of drivers testing positive for alcohol declined from 12.4 percent in 2007 to 8.3 percent during the same period, the survey found.

Health officials said further national data on drugged driving across the country is unavailable because the survey is no longer conducted. 

For other research about drugged driving, New York health officials looked to California. They noted medical marijuana in California has been increasing in availability since 1996 when it passed the first state law, but drugged driving overall actually decreased in recent years. 

The number of California drivers killed in crashes that tested positive for drugs dropped nine percentage points in 2015, from an average of 28 percent in prior years to 19 percent.

New York's marijuana push

Health officials noted dozens of reasons the state should legalize the drug for adult use.

For example, the report said legalization could cut down on the disproportionate arrests of black and Hispanic users and allow the state to control the licensing and regulating of the industry.

New York could take in up to $678 million in tax revenue in a year if it legalizes marijuana for recreational use, the report said, citing tax rates of 7 percent and 15 percent.

New York currently allows marijuana for medical use, though its program is one of the most restrictive in the country, prohibiting users from taking the drug in smokeable forms.

State lawmakers are expected to debate the recreational marijuana legislation when they return in January.

 

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