PHILADELPHIA — When New Jersey lawmakers debated earlier this year whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the Garden State's police organizations were adamantly against it.
The cops said that legal weed might lead to an explosion in the numbers of impaired drivers operating under the influence. And the police would be caught flatfooted trying to tell whether drivers they pulled over were high or not.
"With alcohol, if you have over 0.08% in your blood, there's the presumption that you're intoxicated," said Christopher Leusner, head of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. "There hasn't been a blood test or a breath test that can determine if you're impaired by marijuana."
Now there is.
It's a breathalyzer device developed by Hound Labs in Northern California. It's portable and can run tests for both alcohol and marijuana. It just may change the minds of many of those reluctant police officers, including in Pennsylvania as lawmakers consider several proposals to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Intrinsic Capital Partners, a Philadelphia growth equity fund, is so convinced of a "potential massive market" for the device that it led a $30 million Series D financing round to bring it to market in 2020.
Mike Lynn, a veteran emergency department physician from Oakland, Calif., developed the Hound in collaboration with researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco.
Lynn also happens to be a reserve deputy sheriff.
"It's about creating a balance of public safety and fairness," Lynn said. "I've seen the tragedies resulting from impaired driving up close. And I have a good idea how challenging it is at the roadside to know whether someone smoked pot recently. But I believe if someone is not stoned, they shouldn't be arrested."
Blood tests for marijuana can return a positive result even if someone has used cannabis within the last three weeks.
Lynn claims that his device can detect whether someone has smoked or ingested a marijuana edible within the last three hours.
A Canadian start-up, called SannTek, has a device in development with similar capabilities.
The Hound is made up of a base station and a hand-held device that together will retail for about $5,000 a unit. The entire machine will be manufactured in the United States, Lynn said. Each test also will require a $20 onetime use cartridge.
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"We have spoken with law enforcement agencies and large employers, and from our perspective, there's a huge, untapped market and unmet needs for something like this," said Howard Goodwin, principal at Intrinsic Capital Partners.
Dick Wolf, the creator of TV's Law & Order, is also an enthusiastic Hound backer. So is Benchmark, the Silicon Valley venture capital powerhouse that put up seed funding to Dropbox, Snap, Uber and WeWork.
"It's a game changer," said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on marijuana legalization.
"I've been saying for years it's only a matter of time before someone developed the technology and got the science right," Hudak said. "That time apparently is now. And they're going to make a hell of a lot of money selling it to law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and Canada."
Goodwin said about 50 million drug tests are conducted each year. He believes the market for a THC breathalyzer may be worth well above $10 billion annually.
About 30 states have legalized cannabis. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the dozens with medical marijuana programs. The governors of both states support legalizing it for recreational use. And polls in both states show the majority of voters would support full legalization.
But traditionally, law enforcement has been resistant to legalization.
Leusner, the head of the New Jersey police chiefs group, said prosecuting marijuana DUIs is costly and time-consuming.
Marijuana DUI cases hinge on blood test results. Traces of THC metabolites, the drug's byproducts, can remain in the body for up to a month. Proving impairment is notoriously difficult. There is no "per se" standard, or legal threshold, of what constitutes intoxication. Often, cases get thrown out of court.
Officers who are qualified drug recognition experts and trained to spot stoned drivers can spend up to two days in court on the stand. "That's expensive," Leusner said.
John Adams, Berks County's district attorney, serves on Pennsylvania's statewide medical marijuana advisory board.
"DUI under marijuana is a huge, huge problem. It's one of the reasons we've been against legalization," Adams said. "I've heard about the breathalyzers. If the technology is out there, it would be a great tool. It would alleviate some of our fears."