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Weed Vending Machines Have Hit the U.S.

These high-tech dispensers are way more conservative than you might expect.

Photo by Dr. Brainfish via Flickr

This month, Washington state’s legalization of recreational marijuana seemingly reached its logical conclusion with the installation of the state’s first weed vending machine in Seattle.

In abstract, the device (which is also Bitcoin-compatible, just for added zeitgeist-y value) sounds like a terrible idea, prone to the sort of general abuse that could set back the tide of legalization that’s been sweeping the country. But in truth, the new machine, created by Zazzz, stocked with everything from buds to vaporizer pens, and installed inside the Delightful Caregivers medicinal dispensary, is more conservative than libertine. Restricted to medicinal users and guarded by age- and ID-verifying security, the machine is actually the latest iteration in a series of fairly successful pot vending machines designed to make selling legal weed cheaper, reduce stress on consumers, and make the industry seem a little more official and normalized—a ploy that seems to be working.

Weed vending machines started to pop up in the U.S. around 2012, but by that time dozens of them were already in use in medicinal dispensaries throughout Canada. (There was one in New Zealand then as well, but it wasn’t really legal—just a tolerated machine used by a cannabis club to help members avoid distribution and sales charges during police raids.) Yet it wasn’t until last year that the technology started to take off in states like Arizona (home of the Zazzz’s makers, Tranzbyte) and Colorado. However once the devices took root, their popularity spread rapidly. By the time Seattle got its first vending machine, there were 18 machines active in Arizona, California, and Colorado, and several more on order for distribution in other states as well.

Part of the reason these pot vending machines have taken off without much circumspection has to do with their extreme attention to security and respectability. Most machines require users to swipe an ID, assessing that they are over 18 and registered to receive a medicinal dosage of weed. They then have to confirm this ID using biometric readings, either from fingerprint or retinal scans, or facial recognition software in security cameras. Placed inside stores, overseen by clerks, and stocked with locally grown weed, the machines only accept cash, in order to avoid infringing on federal regulations. The devices may vary in their design and stock, but they’re all immaculately safe and compliant.

Right now all the machines in the U.S. are medicinal and within dispensaries. But that might not always be the case. Manufacturers say they’re paying careful attention right now to proving their security, profitability, and legitimacy in a skittish, new, totally legal marketplace. Since medical marijuana is the most widespread legal use of pot, it’s easy to scale up, gain some visibility, and play by well-established rules in that field. But as of 2013, at least one weed machine manufacturer, MedBox, was already looking into ways to adapt their technology for recreational purposes in Colorado and Washington.

Making the jump from highly secured vending machines to more liberally accessible and recreational ones will be difficult. The more public they become, the more concerns of abuse and underage use will arise. Canada may once again show us the way, though—last May the first vending machine that didn’t require an ID for access went live in Vancouver. By keeping an eye on the problems that emerge with this machine and others that follow it, the American pot industry can reach for more accessibility without losing the legitimacy and security built by medicinal vending machines. It will take time, but not much, given the pace of growth in the marijuana market.

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