Medical marijuana vending machines take root in Los Angeles


From the Associated Press
1:08 PM PST, January 30, 2008
The city that popularized the fast food drive-thru has a new
innovation: 24-hour medical marijuana vending machines.

Patients suffering from chronic pain, loss of appetite and other
ailments that marijuana is said to alleviate can get their pot with a
dose of convenience at the Herbal Nutrition Center, where a large
machine will dole out the drug around the clock.

"Convenient access, lower prices, safety, anonymity," inventor and
owner Vincent Mehdizadeh said, extolling the benefits of the machine.

But federal drug agents say the invention may need unplugging.

"Somebody owns (it), it's on a property and somebody fills it," said
DEA Special Agent Jose Martinez. "Once we find out where it's at,
we'll look into it and see if they're violating laws."

At least three dispensaries in the city, including two belonging to
Mehdizadeh, have installed vending machines to distribute the drug to
people who carry cards authorizing marijuana use.

Mehdizadeh said he spent seven months to develop and patent the
black, armored box, which he calls the "PVM," or prescription vending
machine.

A sliding fence protects the tinted windows of his dispensary, barely
distinguishing it from a busy thoroughfare of strip malls, automobile
dealers and furniture shops. A box resembling a large refrigerator
stands inside the nearly empty shop, near a few shelves stocked with
vitamins and herbs.

A guard in a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Security" on the
front stands at the door. A poster of Bob Marley decorates a back
room.

The computerized machine requires fingerprint identification and a
prepaid card with a magnetic stripe. Once the card and fingerprint
are verified, a bright green envelope with the pot drops down a slot.

Mehdizadeh says any user approved for medical marijuana and
registered in a computer database at his dispensaries can pre-
purchase the drug and then use the machine to pick up.

The process provides convenience and privacy for users who may
otherwise feel uncomfortable about buying marijuana, Mehdizadeh said.

At the Timothy Leary Medical Dispensary in the San Fernando Valley,
the vending machine is accessible only during business hours. An
employee there said the machine was introduced about five months ago,
and provides speedy service.

"It helps a lot of patients who are in a lot of pain and don't want
to wait around to get help," Robert Schwartz said. "It's been working
out great."

Mehdizadeh said he sought the advice of doctors, and decided to limit
the amount of marijuana per user to an ounce per week. Each purchase
from the machine yields 1/8th or 2/8th of an ounce. By eliminating a
vendor behind the counter, he said, the machine offers users lower
drug prices. The 1/8th ounce packet would cost about $40 -- $20 lower
than the average price at other dispensaries.

A spokesman for a marijuana advocacy group said the machine also
benefits dispensary owners.

"It limits the number of workers in the store in the event of a raid,
and it'll make it harder for theft," said Nathan Sands, of The
Compassionate Coalition.

Marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which does not recognize
the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.

The Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies have been
actively shutting down major medical marijuana dispensaries
throughout the state over the last two years and charging their
operators with felony distribution charges.

Mehdizadeh said the Herbal Nutrition Center was the target of a
federal raid in December. He said no arrests were made and no charges
have been filed against him.

Kris Hermes, a spokesman for advocacy group Americans for Safe
Access, said the machine might benefit those who already know how
much and what strain of marijuana they're looking for. But he said
others will want to see and smell the drug before they buy it.

A man who said he has been authorized to use medical marijuana as
part of his anger management therapy said the vending machine's
security measures would at least protect against illicit use of the
drug.

"You have kids that want to get high and that's not what marijuana is
for," Robert Miko said. "It's to medicate."