British Columbia

UBC researchers develop $15 pot breathalyzer

Researchers at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus have developed a small device that can detect marijuana.

Device can detect level of pot and alcohol impairment

UBC Engineering professor Mina Hoorfar, right, says the device she developed to detect marijuana only costs $15 to manufacture. (UBC-O)

Researchers at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus have developed a "pot breathalyzer" — a handheld device similar to those used to detect alcohol.

"The sensor is very light. It's less than 10 grams. It's low-powered. It's portable. The signal is transferred to the blue tooth to a smart phone or iPhone and it gives you the result of any gasses that you are interested in," said UBC engineering professor Mina Hoorfar.

Hoorfar is one of several researchers racing to develop a roadside breathalyzer to detect whether drivers are impaired by the drug in light of increasingly relaxed marijuana laws in Canada and the U.S.

The legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana in several U.S. states has already revealed a number of challenges for law enforcement and safety advocates as they confront a surge in drivers who've smoked up, opening up a potentially lucrative markets for manufacturers to step into. 

On Wednesday, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced at a special United Nations session on drugs that legislation to begin the process of legalizing and regulating pot in Canada will be introduced next spring.

Vancouver-based Cannabix Technologies, founded by a retired RCMP officer, is also developing a pot breathalyzer, as is Colorado-based Lifeloc Technologies and a chemistry professor-PhD student duo at Washington State University.

Cannabix Technologies president and former RCMP officer Kal Malhi says his company has raised millions of dollars to bring its marijuana breathalyzer to market.

But Hoorfar says her device is different because of its level of sensitivity and price. She says it only costs $15 to manufacture, and it can also detect alcohol and other drugs. 

Hoorfar thinks the device could be used by law enforcement agencies, as well as by pot users who want to check how impaired they are before getting behind the wheel.

"They can buy it. They have it in their hand. If they are under the influence, they know about it," Hoorfar said. "So they won't sit behind the wheel and they won't drive."

She's looking for investors and says the device could be on the market some time next year.

With files from Brady Strachan, Thomson Reuters and The Canadian Press