Monday November 17, 2014 1 comments
By Curt MacDougall
WHEAT RIDGE -- As the saying goes, "When opportunity knocks, open the door."
A Wheat Ridge company is doing just that.
Lifeloc Technologies has been developing and manufacturing alcohol breathalyzers since 1983. Their products are approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Food and Drug Administration, and are widely used in forensic laboratories around the world.
And in a new era of marijuana acceptance, Lifeloc is seizing the opportunity to provide tools for law enforcement to make sure marijuana users are obeying traffic rules.
As Lifeloc Executive Vice President G. Ravishankar - or 'Ravi' - explains: "Our goal has always been to remain innovative in the marketplace as opposed to providing just 'me, too' products."
That innovation has kept the firm on a solid growth path, one that has it supplying breath testers to thousands of clients in more than 50 countries - clients such as Boeing, the Mayo Clinic and any number of correctional and law enforcement agencies.
Ravi says the focus at Lifeloc is public safety, whether it's helping shipping firms meet Department of Transportation standards or giving law enforcement the tools to take drunk drivers off the road.
"We also sell educational products for schools that can help illustrate to students the hazards of drunk driving," he adds. Those include alcohol and drug impairment goggles that simulate first-hand what it feels like to be 'under the influence.'
Now recent social changes have the company eyeing a new market. "In the last few years we have been taking a long, hard look at what's happening in the drug-detection space, particularly with the legalization of marijuana," Ravi says.
The trend is undeniable. Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia just voted to join Colorado and Washington in approving marijuana for recreational use. That's on top of the 23 states where medical marijuana is already legal. But just like with alcohol, 'use' is one thing, 'impairment' another.
So Lifeloc sees a need for better detection techniques going forward.
At the moment, there isn't a field test for marijuana that gives immediate results. Blood or urine samples need to be taken and then sent to a lab for analysis, with the entire process usually taking several weeks. Ravi says there's a reason no one has developed an accurate, reliable 'breathalyzer-type' detector that can be used in the field.
"The amount of marijuana you need in your body before you are impaired is substantially lower than with alcohol," he explains. "With alcohol, we are talking about parts per million, whereas with marijuana you are in the parts per billion level. So it's much harder to detect because you just don't have as much to work with."
It's a fairly complex puzzle. Until now, most of the available detection techniques have centered on identifying a by-product of marijuana, a metabolite that stays in the system for varying lengths of time. But here's the rub: Since the metabolite is not the psychoactive component in marijuana, detecting it can't tell you if a person is "high" or under the influence at that moment, only that they have used the drug at some recent point.
The trick, then, is being able to detect the psychoactive component, known as Delta 9 THC - the compound that actually makes you high. "That's the part that we have been focused on going after," according to Ravi. "That is, at some level, the Holy Grail. Because if you have Delta 9 THC in your system, then there is no denying that you have smoked marijuana."
Thanks in part to a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development, Lifeloc scientists have come up with a method that can not only detect the presence of Delta 9 THC in a person's exhaled breath, it can also identify the metabolite separately.
Another stumbling block in the process has been the fact that, when it comes to marijuana, there are currently no defined parameters as to what constitutes 'impaired' - how much Delta 9 THC is too much? Prior to the advent of medical marijuana, any amount in a person's system was illegal, but now that the gates have been opened, states will need to set those limits.
Once that happens, Lifeloc will be ready. Ravi says the company expects to have a first-of-its-kind model ready for testing by next year and hopes to have it on the market by 2016.