American Green master agent Ester Tepku operates the ZaZZZ machine on South Jackson Street, the first vending machine in the nation to sell marijuana and marijuana infused products. • Photo by Nick Wong
American Green master agent Ester Tepku operates the ZaZZZ machine on South Jackson Street, the first vending machine in the nation to sell marijuana and marijuana infused products. • Photo by Nick Wong

Seattle Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary located on South Jackson Street, debuted the country’s first marijuana vending machine and has plans to take the trend nationwide.

The dispensary is the first in the nation to adopt vending machines as a way to sell their products to patients. The ZaZZZ machine, an innovation from the Arizona-based company American Green, is responsible.

Walking into Seattle Caregivers, the place is split into two sections. In the back is a fully stocked salesroom complete with glass case counters displaying the facility’s inventory. In the front is a bare white-walled waiting room with a sliding glass window for staff to communicate with patients. And against the wall opposite sit two of the famed ZaZZZ machines, plugged in and ready for service. The idea, like most vending machines, is convenience.

“It’s about technology giving you what you want and what you need at the right time instead of having to wait to someone,” says Esther Tepku, an American Green master agent responsible for the implementation of the new machines in the Seattle area. “Whether you’re using it for candy and chips, or cannabis, it does the same thing. It gives the consumer what it wants.”

Though Tepku does not work directly for Seattle Caregivers, she is co-opted into the dispensary to ensure the ZaZZZ launch goes smoothly. Because it is prohibited for Arizona growers to ship product across state lines, American Green employs local growers and partners with dispensaries in the area interested in leasing out its product. Currently, the machines are not available for purchase, though Tepku estimates about seven machines being leased in dispensaries throughout the state, with the International District location being the first.

“As far as the Chinatown area and the neighbors and businesses, we’ve been accepted properly,” Tepku says. “We’ve been on cordial ties with everyone. I don’t feel there’s any animosity or anger about us being in the area, at least not forwardly,” she laughs. “As far as patients, they’ve been consistent. I think the Seattle area is a bit congested when it comes to dispensaries, but it’s been consistent.”

While medical marijuana use has been legal (or unenforced) in some form since 1998, it wasn’t until 2012 when Washington State passed Initiative 502, which legalized the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana-related products for adults 21 and over. The legalization of recreational marijuana led to the spawning of dispensaries throughout the state. Seattle Caregivers exists within a sea of dispensaries in a two-block radius, and the use of the ZaZZZ vending machine is an attempt to separate itself from the competition.

Tepku fires up the machine and a swirling selection menu pops up against a bright slick touch-screen. Consumers can choose anything from edibles to THC-infused beverages. Though the first generation of the ZaZZZ machine debuted in Colorado throughout the past year, the current version is the first to dispense the more commonly recognized and smokeable marijuana buds. Goods are kept fresh by a built-in temperature control, and the machine accepts cash and the digital currency Bit-Coin for purchase. In terms of vending machine standards, it certainly has quality control and accessibility covered. But what about security? Even with the required ID swipe, what prevents a minor from using someone else’s ID?

“Facial recognition is key, and we do have a biometrics embedded into our machines, so not only do you have to scan your ID, but there is also a camera to do the facial recognition,” Tepku says. “We’re also going to attempt to build a much more secure technology, like a retina scan and right now the machine is completely anti-theft.”

Currently, the ZaZZZ machine is limited to dispensaries and full-supervision by its staff, though the company’s goal is to reach what Tepku refers to as “the RedBox model,” referencing the self-automated machines dispensing rental movies and video games commonly seen in supermarkets and outside convenience stores. The system works on a membership login basis and American Green plans on replicating both its login model as well as its wide public availability, eventually taking vending machine sales outside the confinement of dispensaries.

“We are waiting for the legislation and laws to pass to have [marijuana use] completely legal across the entire U.S., and then will we be able to expand to be on the same RedBox platforms,” Tepku says. “We are attempting to get into all the medical pharmacies. If you can walk in and pick your marijuana in the pharmacy, you will be able to get it from a vending machine.”

But even if nationwide legislation is passed, having self-automated machines publicly vend formerly prohibited—and always controversial—substances is a risky venture. Perhaps the most comparable example is the cigarette vending machine, which over time has dwindled from the public’s presence and is now mostly restricted to venues with age restrictions. Given the highly controversial nature of marijuana use and its legislation, it is not clear whether or not marijuana will reach the level of public acceptance that American Green hopes for. Tepku, however, predicts the company will be on the forefront of an inevitable change, despite the naysayers.

“There’s always going to be supporters and folks against change. Change is always going to be one of those things you adapt to or stay stagnant,” Tepku says. “The world is going to keep moving and you can either grow with it or continue to fight against it. It’s going come, it always does. Everything comes in time and it’s the patient that’s going to thrive.”

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