COLLEGE PLACE, WA. -- We all know about breathalyzers that detect blood alcohol levels. On Thursday, we got an update about new technology being developed at Washington State University to detect when someone is driving after smoking marijuana.
It really does look like your standard breathalyzer for alcohol. But this is being used to test for THC in your system, or whether you're high when driving.
There's a lot of testing that needs to be done before this can hit the roads with law enforcement.
"Alcohol is very different from THC," Professor Herbert Hill from WSU said.
That makes it very hard for WSU Professor Herbert Hill and his team, who have now developed their second prototype of a marijuana breathalyzer. But Hill insists the technology is not a replacement for a blood test.
"This will just help (law enforcement) make a better decision in the field," Professor Hill said.
Outside Wednesday's work session with several state senators, Professor Hill gave us a quick demonstration. The team's first round of studies this fall had about a 50 to 60% success rate. But the fact it worked at all is a big deal.
"We were able to show that we can detect THC in their breath," Hill told us.
There are still hurdles, such as the 5 nanogram limit to determine impairment. That was the first question one state senator asked; is that an appropriate benchmark for driving high?
"I think they will argue about whether you are impaired at that level or not for some time to come," Hill said.
But in the end, the ultimate goal of this breathalyzer is to stop impaired driving, with a newly legalized drug now on the market.
"So we're going to need a game changer," Professor Hill said. "And one of the game changers is to get people off the road that are impaired with drugs. And this will help."
In the future the technology in this breathalyzer may also be used to detect a host of other drugs, just by measuring your breath.
It could be as soon as next summer depending on how the tests go. Professor Hill says he's had very positive feed back from law enforcement departments around the state.