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Inventing the toke-alyzer 

A Colorado company wants to make THC-impairment testing easier

A 31-year-old Colorado company is set to wade into the state's contentious marijuana DUI laws with a product now under development. As envisioned by Lifeloc Technologies, a publicly traded company based in Wheat Ridge that mostly makes alcohol breathalyzers, it would be a hand-held device that employers and law enforcement could use to detect how much delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is active in the body, says CEO Barry Knott.

"The metabolites, the byproducts of smoking marijuana, will persist in the body for weeks or months even, but they don't say anything about whether you're intoxicated," Knott says. "They're just there, and they're an indication that you've consumed the drug in the past. What we're after is being able to detect that specific compound, delta-9, that makes one intoxicated. And because it only really persists for a couple hours, we feel like we have to find some sort of a real-time test for it."

Knott goes on: "There's been scientific research that has demonstrated that delta-9 is exhaled in the breath in a similar way to alcohol. It's not the same chemical process, but it is exhaled in the breath and it can be picked up with a different type of technology than is used in breath-alcohol detection. But it's there, and that's what gives us the encouragement."

Over the phone, Knott comes across as a good-natured guy. A former marketing executive, he's quick to say his company has nothing to do with the identity-protection company LifeLock and its "terrible commercials," and he describes himself as a hired hand with a background in management. Lifeloc is a Top Five player in the global breathalyzer market, Knott says, which last year meant $8.43 million in revenue, with a quarter of sales occurring overseas.

The company's SEC filings frequently mention research and development as being necessary for continued prosperity, meaning developing new products is as much about survival as success. And measuring THC intoxication certainly requires new technology.

The most recent batch of booze-related breathalyzers employs a process wherein air is exhaled into an electrochemical fuel cell, which utilizes the alcohol in your breath as a power source to generate an electrical current; that's then measured and converted into a blood-alcohol concentration. The amount in your breath is directly proportional to the amount in your bloodstream.

Delta-9 doesn't act as a fuel source, so instead spectroscopic techniques are used to identify its chemical fingerprint. Lifeloc is partnering with several Colorado universities and national laboratories, which Knott declined to name, to create technology similar to what's used to detect explosives.

Toward this end, the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade awarded the company a $250,000 grant earlier in the year, which Lifeloc had to match with $500,000 of its own money. "This company was funded based on their competitive application," says OEDIT spokeswoman Katie Woslager via email. "They do want to commercialize their technology to potentially sell to Colorado law enforcement."

Knott figures it's going to take more than $750,000 to bring the product to market, but once there he hopes to sell the devices for around $3,000 to $4,000. (Current alcohol breathalyzers run between $500 and $2,000.) He expects to begin beta testing by the end of next year, he says, with a commercial version tentatively available in 2016.

There's apparently no great rush. Though Lt. Jeff Strossner with the Colorado Springs Police Department cautions that the data can be skewed by multiple substances being detected — and that there are likely more offenders than the data reflects — only 59 of 124 toxicology tests came back positive for cannabis in 2013. (1,811 impaired-driving arrests were made in total.) And statistics from the Colorado Department of Transportation say 5.7 percent of drivers involved in a fatal crash in 2013 tested positive for pot.

In August, the Washington Post reported that if you include the increasing amount driven by Coloradans, and calculate a rate based on miles driven per fatality, "the state would be at lows unseen in decades."

Still, it's a market ripe for innovation, where the current solution to testing, a hospital-administered blood test done after an officer suspects impairment, is less than ideal.

"This is the first big departure for us outside of [alcohol] breath testing, and we think if we're successful, we'll hit a home run," says Knott. "And we just saw in the elections that, what, two more states and Washington, D.C. have gone [legal]? So, we think the trend is unlikely to go away any time soon."

  • A Colorado company wants to make THC-impairment testing easier

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