Picogram-Sensitive Cannabis Breathalyzers Soon to Hit the Market

police holding breath analyzer

police holding breath analyzer

The race to mass-scale cannabis breathalyzers production continues

Despite some innovations over the years, the science of detecting cannabis intoxication through breath analysis has elusive. But scientists have been slowly chipping away at the challenge, building up momentum as they narrow down the precision of measurements.

The discovery of certain exotic materials has also fast-tracked the progress in the field. We’re now certain that it won’t take long before marijuana breathalyzers become as widely used as similar models used for alcohol. 

But after cannabis breathalyzers are finally deployed en mass, one epic battle will continue to face law enforcement – that of adopting a scientifically-backed framework for determining the correlation between impairment levels and the risks of accidents. But that isn’t deterring a number of tech organizations from digging in to develop prototypes for commercial marijuana breathalyzers.

In this article, we break down 3 leading innovators taking on the cannabis breathalyzer market.


1. Philips

Recently, Philips announced major plans to wade into the cannabis breathalyzer market, as well as launch a platform for tests and analysis of biomarkers like blood and saliva. The Philips breathalyzer is billed to handle tests with precision levels to the billionth particle range in a microliter of saliva.

The device consists of two segments: a cartridge with a disposable plastic for collecting and measuring saliva, and a handheld electronic analyzer. It’s designed not only for checking DUI of cannabis, but of 4 other types of inebriants. The cartridge operates with magnetic, lingand-coated nanoparticles that gravitate to particles of any of the following 5 drug groups:

  • Cannabis;
  • Cocaine;
  • Heroin;
  • Amphetamine; and
  • Methamphetamine.


2. Hound Labs

Hounds Lab recently announced a massive round of funding that will put the mass-scale production of their breathalyzer in full swing. Since its inception in 2014, the Hound Labs have been hot on the trails of a possible marijuana breathalyzer model. So far, they’ve scaled past the clinical trial of a prototype with collaborative efforts from University of California researchers. The results, which were published earlier this year, symbolize an affirmation of the efficacy and efficiency of the prototype. The device was shown to detect THC in breath to a trillionth of a gram or one pictogram per liter of breath.

The device is specifically designed to pick up THC intoxication in a person who smoked as recently as a few hours. It is fine-tuned to capture THC levels within at-least three hours after consumption (after which THC breath concentration drops below 5% of the measurement range of the device).

cannabis breathalyzer from Hound Labs

The prototype of cannabis breathalyzer from Hound Labs. Img src


Company CEO Mike Lynn believes that the device makes the concept of testing breath more viable, convenient, and marketable compared to tests of other biomarkers like blood or saliva. The company’s latest round of fund-raising amassed over $30 million in fresh funding. In a recent official statement, company Mr. Lynn stated that, “With the publication of clinical study results validating breath as the new frontier for testing recent use of THC, investors can see the tremendous value that Hound Labs will bring to the market with its first-of-its-kind technology.”

Mr. Lee also pointed out that the timing of the development is crucial to help galvanize the legalization movement by minimizing risks that might cause scandals derailing the movement.


3. Researchers from the University of Pittsburg

Another highly reliable model of cannabis breathalyzers has been developed by a group of engineers from the University of Pittsburgh. According to the results of the study published in the journal ACS Sensors, the breathalyzer, which operates with carbon nanotubes, can detect THC in breath with nano-level precision. The device has been shown to track THC molecules in a breath sample using tiny carbon nanotubes.

cannabis breathalyzer developed by a team of engineers from the University of Pittsburg

The prototype of a cannabis breathalyzer developed by a team of engineers from the University of Pittsburg. Img src

The success of the project comes off the heels of a recent breakthrough in the fabrication of exotic nano-materials. In the publication, the lead author of the paper, Sean Hwang, stated that, "The semiconductor carbon nanotubes that we are using weren't available even a few years ago." Recent advancements in machine learning also played a major role in the emergence of the prototype. "We used machine learning to 'teach' the breathalyzer to recognize the presence of THC based on the electrical currents recovery time, even when there are other substances, like alcohol, present in the breath," said Hwang.


Final words -- What’s next?

It’s one thing to detect THC levels in breath, and another thing entirely to determine the levels of impairment and the legal ramifications of intoxication. The jury is still out on the correlation between intoxication levels and accident risks. As a result, the road to widespread cannabis breathalyzer use will likely continue to face tough question.