Machine sells medical marijuana

January 30, 2008

Brandon Lowrey, Contra Costa Times

Vending machines have long been used to hawk everything from Skittles and sandwiches to juice and java, but now one is being used to offer a new product: medical marijuana.

Not just anyone can pop some coins in and get some marijuana. The machine, developed by Los Angeles medical-marijuana dispensary owner Vincent Mehdizadeh, gives as much as an ounce of marijuana per week only to preapproved patients.

The specialized machine installed Monday at Herbal Nutrition Center -- a medical-marijuana dispensary on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles -- requires fingerprint identification and a special prepaid card.

"I wanted to take steps to benefit the industry," said Mehdizadeh, who owns two dispensaries. "We have legitimate patients that need us."

Mehdizadeh's machine is far from the standard potato-chip model. The black, armored box is bolted to the floor at the entrance to the dispensary.

It has a card swiper, a video camera that also takes a snapshot of any user and adds it to a database, and it is protected by armed security guards.

Beginning today, Mehdizadeh said, he would start fingerprinting patients who want to use the machine, which will dispense five types of marijuana: Platinum Kush, Fire O.G., Bubba Kush, Purple Kush and Wild Cherry.

Mehdizadeh says the machine offers greater convenience to patients seeking the drug to ease everything from chronic pain to sleeping problems.

But even some of the most devoted defenders of medical marijuana
question the idea of vending machines.

"This is bittersweet in that it shows great entrepreneurship but opens up terrific avenues of ridicule," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"Please be prepared for a Jay Leno joke."

Mehdizadeh said the machines also could allow dispensaries to sell marijuana at lower prices because of reduced overhead costs.

He also said it would avert the hazard of robberies that storefronts face. The valley has seen 13 medical-marijuana dispensary robberies in the past two years, including two this month.

Others are wary of the impersonal technology, including Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of NORML, a nonprofit public-interest lobbying group that opposes marijuana prohibition.

Gieringer said personal interaction is a necessary part of the medical-marijuana-buying process.

"The odor of cannabis often tells a lot about its qualities, and also, if you inspect it closely, you can sometimes tell whether it has mold and things like that," said Gieringer, a co-author of the state's Compassionate Use Law.

The law, approved by California voters in 1996, legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes and allows dispensaries -- and the new vending machines -- to operate.

Proponents cite marijuana's usefulness in treating patients suffering from chronic pain, appetite loss and other symptoms.

California treats possession of an ounce or less of marijuana without a prescription as a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. More than an ounce could mean jail time.

But state law has been at odds with federal law, which classifies even medicinal marijuana as illegal.

After a series of federal raids on medical-marijuana facilities, the Los Angeles City Council placed a moratorium on new dispensaries in July as it considered ideas for better regulation.

But with so many dispensaries and so many drug laws to enforce, federal agents have been only gradually chipping away at California marijuana vendors, said Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Jose Martinez.

"It's not like TV, where you can pick up the phone and say, 'I want a search warrant,'" Martinez said. "The agents have to do a meticulous investigation. It's just a matter of time."

Mehdizadeh's high-tech approach to dispensing medical marijuana is novel, Martinez said, but he has seen plenty of standard, unsecured vending machines stocked with marijuana inside dispensaries.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access -- a national organization that promotes safe and legal access to marijuana for therapeutic use and research -- said the new machine seems more secure.

"That sounds like he's taking good precautionary measures," Hermes said. "I think, ultimately, it's going to be up to the city of Los Angeles to decide how to regulate these facilities ... probably regulate that into the ordinance that they're currently working on."

Mehdizadeh said he has been trying to reach out to City Council members and convince them that the machine is a key way to regulate the industry because it includes an automatic database.

Members of the City Council's health committee did not return calls seeking comment Monday.

Los Angeles is not the only place where marijuana laws and enforcement have conflicted in recent years. In 2005, Denver city officials legalized marijuana in small amounts for adults 21 and older. But many Denver residents were cited for marijuana possession because it still is illegal under state and federal laws.

St. Pierre said that whatever happens, Mehdizadeh's machine will likely be a milestone in the medical-marijuana movement.

"Of the little benchmarks over a 15-year period, this machine will probably be one of them," he said.

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