Hound Labs, the startup founded by venture capitalist Mike Lynn, has just received a huge investment by Benchmark, one of Silicon Valley’s largest venture capital firms.
The startup is focusing on the marijuana breathalyzer, a device that would theoretically be able to determine if someone has recently consumed cannabis. The inspiration for Lynn’s creation came from witnessing drivers under the influence of cannabis, but also the current methods for drug testing by employers looking for stoned workers. Typically, those tests will show if a person has used cannabis within the past 30 days. “The paradigm needs to change,” said Lynn. “Why should you be checking what someone did on the weekend?”
Lynn’s device is called the Hound, and it measures the amount of THC in a person’s breath. This test is meant to detect usage during the previous few hours, which is what particularly interests law enforcement when looking for drivers under the influence of cannabis. The company began field trials last fall, and by all accounts were promising.
But what the Hound cannot do is determine whether a driver is truly impaired. The science behind legal limits for cannabis is lacking, partially due to federal drug laws that prohibit the necessary research. It took decades to be able to determine a legal limit for alcohol, develop a roadside test for alcohol intoxication, and form legislation around that data. While some states have an established legal limit, that figure is not based in any solid research. Law enforcement have been using subjective field sobriety tests, which are proven to be inaccurate. “As far as having something that really works, defense and prosecutors can agree—the science is not there yet.” said Nick Morrow, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff deputy who specializes in drug symptomatology and teaches drug recognition classes.
Even more nebulous is the concept of tolerance. A medical marijuana patient who uses cannabis daily will have a much higher tolerance than a first-time user. THC also affects individuals more specifically than alcohol. The intensity and the length of intoxication varies based on height, weight, diet, metabolism, and other variables specific to each user. “It’s simply not possible today to determine whether a driver is impaired based solely on the amount of the drug in their body,” said American Automobile Association’s Marshall Doney in a 2016 study.
But the demand for an instant, reliable test is propelling Hound Labs to refine their product. After an initial $6 million from individual investors, Benchmark has facilitated another $8.1 million. Lynn, a trained emergency room physician and reserve police officer, has secured relationships with San Francisco General Hospital and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to conduct field trials and supervise research. The Hound was expected to go on sale within the first six months of 2017, but now appears to be targeted towards the end of the year.
While marijuana legalization has accelerated over the past five years, there is a concern by law enforcement to tackle impaired driving. But if inaccurate methods are being used that ultimately prove false, innocent drivers will pay the price. “There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment, in the same manner as we do with alcohol,” said Doney. “In the case of marijuana, this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research.”