There’s Weed On Your Breath — Marijuana Breath Analyzers Debut With The Prospect of Recreational Legalization
Across the way from a barbed-wired fence on Jessie Street sits a large, metal door like any other. On the other side of that door is a room flooded with light, color, and most importantly, plants. An array of different shades of green fill the room, but it’s not the succulents hanging from the ceiling in a trendy, San Francisco kind of way. These plants, or “flowers,” are neatly lined up behind a counter, carefully labeled in glass jars that are organized by their strain, reading “Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid.” The display of products is immaculate and tasteful, with impressive lighting showing all of the options for purchase — from cannabis edibles to medical oils for dogs in pain.
“It’s my medicine and I take my medicine every day,” Stephen Rechif says.
Rechif is a tall, six-foot-something man with a large, bushy beard, covered head-to-toe in San Francisco Giants gear. He is a University of San Francisco alumnus with a political science degree, and now is the manager at Bloom Room Medical Marijuana Dispensary. The smell of the potent plants lingers into the back room of the dispensary, where Rechif sits in his office. A glass jar filled with pre-rolled joints sits aside his daily planner and a Mac computer covered in neon-colored sticky notes.
“I don’t smoke while I drive, but driving within a reasonable time from smoking definitely isn’t an issue for me,” Rechif says as he discusses the marijuana breath analyzer, one the Bay Area’s latest innovations.
Hound Labs, an Oakland-based company, has developed a breath analyzer capable of tracing Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in someone’s breath. This innovation in the tech world seems to be making its debut just in time for the November elections — specifically for the determination of Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults ages twenty-one and up.
Prop 64 would implement an additional 15 percent tax on marijuana shops that already pay an 8.5 percent tax to the city of San Francisco. Andrew Acosta, a Prop 64 opponent, argues that the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative is essentially a deal for big businesses. Smaller dispensaries such as the Bloom Room will be paying more for their product, and so will their customers.
“I think a lot of people have this notion that cannabis dispensaries are a huge cash cow … and we’re just making tons of money and not giving anything back,” Rechif says. “And they fear that if it’s legalized, there will be more competition. But the reality of this is that we aren’t allowed to really make a lot of money like people think.”
The same effect is not applied when buying products at wholesale price. Currently, when dispensaries purchase marijuana products in bulk, they do not pay tax on them, and are given the opportunity to give free products to customers in return. If Prop 64 is to pass, there will be taxes implemented on the bulk product, and with every hand it passes through — from the grower to the packaging, the packaging to the dispensary, and the dispensary to the customer — an additional tax will be implemented.
“We all get paid very humble salaries and none of us are like balling off this shit,” Rechif says. “We’re just operating business like everyone else — there’s nothing glamorous about it.”
However, for medical marijuana patients like Rechif, the prospect of legalizing recreational marijuana brings up questions on the legality of driving with THC actively in one’s system, and how to accurately measure one’s level of intoxication as tolerance varies among users.
Created by Dr. Mike Lynn, a former Alameda Deputy Sheriff and emergency room physician, the idea of this technology is to reduce the number of marijuana related accidents. Lynn experienced these incidents first hand in the field.
“We can actually detect and measure THC parts per trillion in someone’s breath,” says Linden Kohtz Garcia from Hound Labs. “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.”
Many involved in the discussion about driving under the influence of marijuana compare it to drunk driving. Jason Kinney, the official spokesman for Yes on Prop 64, argues that although the idea is to identify someone under the influence of marijuana, it is more difficult than determining a drunk driver.
“THC content as a per-se standard does not accurately measure impaired driving,” Kinney says. “You could have THC in your blood and not be impaired at all, or you could have very little THC in your blood and be impaired. Depending [on] who you are, it’s a very personal diagnostic, which is why these technologies under development are so helpful.”
For medical marijuana users such as Rechif, the amount of THC considered to impair an individual is subjective, based on their regular intake of the chemical and how their body processes it.
“I can smoke tons of weed and it doesn’t affect me much at all, but edibles affect me way more,” Rechif explains. “I’m a big guy so you would think that I have a way higher tolerance than I do, but some of the girls who work here can out-eat me in edibles by far, and they’re like half my size.”
Since the legalization of recreational marijuana is still to be determined, law enforcement is still working hard to develop regulatory impaired-driving standards that are accurate and fair for drivers under the influence of marijuana. At the moment, the breath analyzer is still a prototype, so law enforcement officers rely on their personal judgment to determine whether someone is driving stoned or not.
“Determining if someone is under the influence of marijuana is currently based on a field-side sobriety test for everything except alcohol, and we don’t have a golden standard for what impairment is,” says Lauren Michaels, Legislative Affairs Manager for the California Police Chiefs Association. “So we don’t have a .08 for alcohol equivalent for other impairing.”
Whether someone is in favor of the recreational use of marijuana or against it, most agree that having a standard to keep the roads safe is necessary.
“I think from the no-on-64 perspectives, our attitude is that we would get some of these issues right,” Acosta says. “I know the highway patrol folks struggle to target folks who are impaired on the road, because there’s no breath-analyzer machine to see if the THC levels are really making you impaired or not.”
The American Automobile Association has seen a rise in marijuana related accidents since the December 2012 passing of Initiative 502, which legalized recreational use of marijuana in the state of Washington. From 2010 through 2014, the AAA conducted a study on the prevalence of marijuana involvement in fatal car accidents. The numbers gathered in the study showed individuals whose blood tests only had traces of THC and no other substances. According to the study, between the years 2010 and 2013 the estimated number of drivers involved in fatal car accidents who had a detectable amount of THC in their blood was between forty-eight and fifty-three people. In 2014, those numbers doubled, rising to 106 people.
“Overall, considering both the actual blood toxicology test results and imputed results, an estimated 303 drivers, 10 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in Washington between 2010 and 2014, had detectable THC in their blood at the time of the crash,” as presented on a AAA fact sheet related to the study.
Since California is on the cusp of being the next big state to legalize marijuana with Prop 64, organizations and law enforcement are working to assure that California’s roads are safe.
“The November ballot initiatives come too soon for us to impact them — after all, we don’t yet have a breathalyzer available for widespread use,” says Garcia from Hound Labs.
The breath analyzer can be expected for a large-scale release in the end of 2017 and will cost around the same price as alcohol breath analyzers currently being used by law enforcement, which is around a thousand dollars.
Rechif, who is ends his day puffing on a joint, will continue to use his medicine daily, regardless of the proposition turnout.
“It’s going to be a really tough thing to judge even with the breathalyzer, but I think for daily users like myself, there are no negative effects when smoking and then getting behind the wheel,” Rechif says, as the medicine exits his mouth in a small cloud of smoke — his apathy towards the breath analyzer exhaling with it.