Pubdate: Wed, 30 Dec 2015
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2015 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: William Bender
Bookmark: (Cannabis and Driving)


Will Gizmo to Weed Out Drivers Who Take the High Road Hit a Stone Wall?

IT'S ALL HAPPENING so fast. Just three years ago, marijuana was 
illegal for recreational use nationwide. That changed when voters in 
Colorado and Washington legalized it in 2012. Oregon, Alaska. and the 
District of Columbia passed similar legislation last year.

Philadelphia has reduced possession of a small amount of marijuana to 
a $25 citation, and Mayorelect Jim Kenney - South Philly Mummer 
turned pot-friendly progressive - has said he would like to eliminate 
weed citations altogether.

A total of 23 states have passed medical-marijuana laws, and at least 
five more are expected to vote on recreational-use ballot questions next year.

Smoke it for your glaucoma. Smoke it to chill. Or don't smoke it at 
all. But pot is here to stay. It's likely only a matter of time 
before most American adults can get a prescription for marijuana or 
buy it as easily as a six-pack of beer.

But things get murky when it comes to driving. Motor-vehicle laws 
have not kept pace with the legalization trend.

The problem: Marijuana's main psychoactive component, THC, remains in 
blood longer than alcohol, so you could get busted for drugged 
driving well after the effects of your last joint have passed.

Mike Lynn, an emergency-room doctor and reserve sheriff in 
California, wants to change that.

The proposed solution: a pot breath analyzer.

Oakland-based Hound Labs announced this month that it had developed 
technology that can determine with one or two breaths whether someone 
has recently smoked marijuana.

The company is working with scientists at the University of 
California, Berkeley, to build a handheld device that cops could use 
for roadside tests - to test for alcohol and weed.

"We are creating this marijuana breathalyzer that not only detects 
THC in breath but also measures the level," said Lynn, Hound Labs' 
chief executive. "By measuring levels, you can actually start 
correlating those levels with true driving impairment, then create 
standards like we have with alcohol."

Lynn said THC remains in someone's breath for only two to three 
hours. Blood tests, such as those used by Philadelphia police, often 
can detect THC or its metabolites many hours - or, sometimes, days - 
after smoking. Lynn said that makes it difficult to distinguish 
between a chronic user who smoked the day before driving and someone 
who was ripping a bong just before getting behind the wheel.

"People are worried they're going to be arrested for testing positive 
when they're not impaired. But we don't want people that are truly 
stoned on the road," Lynn said. "This is a way of helping solve that problem."

Hound Labs plans to start clinical trials early next year with the 
University of California, San Francisco, and San Francisco General 
Hospital, and conduct tests with law enforcement officials. The 
breathalyzer could be on the market by the end of 2016.

"We need to identify those people that shouldn't be driving. This is 
about saving lives and preventing tragedies," Lynn said. "The guy 
that smoked yesterday and didn't get behind the wheel, that's not the 
person we're focused on at all."

'Holy grail and unicorn'

Hound Labs isn't the only company working on this technology, but it 
says its prototype can accurately measure THC levels using a 
proprietary method that is more than one million times more sensitive 
than alcohol breathalyzers.

But some cannabis activists, drug-recognition experts, and law 
enforcement officials are skeptical.

Chris Goldstein, a PhillyNORML board member who last year lobbied 
Kenney, then a councilman, to decriminalize marijuana in 
Philadelphia, calls the breathalyzer "both the holy grail and the 
unicorn of regulation and law enforcement when it comes to marijuana."

Cops would love to have an instrument that could instantly confirm a 
suspicion that someone is high. But establishing an impairment 
threshold for marijuana has been elusive.

What does it actually mean to be stoned? Can the effects of marijuana 
be reduced to a single number on a machine, like those of alcohol?

"The real crux of the issue is that there is no standard for what 
actually constitutes impairment for marijuana," Goldstein said. "The 
science is just not there yet to show us what real impairment means."

Pot affects people differently. A regular user could be several times 
over Pennsylvania's ultrastrict threshold - one nanogram per 
milliliter of THC in blood - and demonstrate little to no impairment. 
But someone who rarely smokes could be high as a kite with a THC 
level in the same range.

Different strains of marijuana can produce sedative or uplifting 
effects with varying cognitive impact. Some tend to induce "couch 
lock" and dull the senses, while others can spur creativity and 
heighten awareness.

"Unlike alcohol, the impairment standard can be very different among 
individuals," Goldstein said.

George Geisler, a drug-recognition expert who provides technical 
assistance to Pennsylvania law enforcement officials, said a 
breathalyzer that only detects marijuana smoked within a few hours 
could cast a narrow net - clearing drivers who perhaps shouldn't be 
on the road, due to the lingering effects of smoking.

Geisler, who has examined drugged drivers at Philadelphia DUI 
checkpoints, said that in his experience, the "Cheech and Chong 
effect" of marijuana might last only a few hours, but it can affect a 
person's attention span and the ability to perform complex tasks 
significantly longer.

"Although it has short-term effects as far as obviously being 
impaired, the psychophysical impairment we see lasts up to 24 hours, 
and I've seen that personally," Geisler said.

Philadelphia Police Sgt. Joseph Rossa of the Accident Investigation 
Division said relying on a breathalyzer for marijuana would miss 
other drugs that would be caught by a drug test, such as PCP and Xanax.

"When we do blood, it tells us pretty much everything that's in 
there. I see it more as limiting," Rossa said of the pot breathalyzer.

"It might be good for parents to buy to see if their kids are getting 
high," he said. "Maybe they're looking at the wrong market."

Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, "The data on whether relaxing 
marijuana laws increases impaired driving is still very rudimentary, 
since this trend of relaxing marijuana laws is relatively new. But 
we're monitoring it, and if there's a clear causal connection then 
we'll look for ways to address it."

Quantifying 'stoned'

Lynn, of Hound Labs, said the next step is to use his device to 
evaluate how well a person can operate a vehicle on a course at 
varying THC levels.

He hopes that will lead to a discussion about the need for national 
marijuana-impairment standards that are more accurate than current 
tests using blood or oral swabs.

"It's really pretty darn arbitrary," Lynn said of current testing methods.

Robert McGrory, a former California Highway Patrol lieutenant whose 
son was killed by a driver who tested positive for marijuana use, 
said the Hound Labs breathalyzer would expose stoned drivers who 
argue - either on the road or in court - that the THC in their blood 
is days old.

"It will totally eliminate that argument," said McGrory, who has been 
working with Lynn in developing the breathalyzer. Conversely, he 
said, "it's going to help us not arrest people that shouldn't be arrested."

Dwight "Spike" Helmick, a former California Highway Patrol 
commissioner who is working with Hound on the breathalyzer, said cops 
need to be prepared if increased marijuana availability leads to an 
uptick in stoned driving.

Helmick said he tries to avoid the debate over legalization, mostly 
because it's a moot point.

"The reality is, it's coming," he said, "so my concern is the safety 
of the motoring public."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom