David Ryder/Reuters

The machine is the result not just of changing laws, but of technological progress.

There should probably be a law—of marketing, of psychology, of thermodynamics—holding that every commercial product, given a long enough tenure on the planet, will eventually end up being sold in a vending machine.Cupcakes. Kale. Crabs. Caviar. Lobster. Beer. Pizza. French fries. Smartphones. Underwear.

And now… pot.

After medicinal marijuana was legalized in Washington state, dispensaries sprang, almost fully formed, from a previously underground market. And then—the second law of vendodynamics—a vending machine sprang up to sell edibles while avoiding the awkward middleman of a human.

This week brings yet more disruption, in the form of a machine in Seattle that cuts even more to the chase: It sells only buds. (Well, buds plus some strategic accessories: vaporizer pens, hemp-oil energy drinks, and the like.) The machine, situated against a wall of the Seattle Caregivers medical marijuana dispensary, was manufactured by the craftily named tech firm American Green, Inc. It is called ZaZZZ. It features, when it comes to its user interface, a touchscreen and little else. It is, obviously, painted green.

Each vending machine—a small miracle of radically efficient design—comes with its own set of problems and solutions. Live lobsters, for example, must be kept so within the tiny confines of a machine. Salads must be kept fresh. T-shirts and underwear must be vacuum-packed to volumes that will make them small enough to suit tricky economies of scale.

For pot, of course, the challenges are even more complicated because of the messy legalities of an industry that has only recently been recognized as an industry in the first place. (The machine’s debut, Reuters notes, “comes as lawmakers in Olympia weigh numerous marijuana-related bills, including a wide-ranging proposal to align the medical and recreational industries by phasing out collective gardens and allowing medical dispensaries to transition to recreational-use shops.”) So, for one thing: How do you supply the machine with product that has been legally obtained? For another, how do you ensure, in the absence of a discerning human, that the person buying the pot is legally able to do so? And how do you accomplish all that in a way that preserves the ease and convenience of a vending machine?

The ZaZZZ starts with its touchscreen, keeping its products—unlike, say, old-school, snack-focused vending machines—hidden from view. The screen isn’t just an ordering interface; it also allows the machine to offer in-depth information, medical and otherwise, about the strains of marijuana being sold.

The product, for its part, is obtained from growers based in Washington state. American Green is based in Tempe, Arizona—and federal laws prohibit the shipping of medical marijuana products across state lines.

The most crucial component of the machine, however, from both a legal and a technological point of view, is its ability to match the face of the pot-purchaser with the ID he or she presents as proof of medical eligibility for it. You start by swiping your ID. Then, the machine uses a set of cameras—backed up with facial recognition software—to match your face to the ID you’ve presented.

As another precaution, given the highly regulated product being sold, the individual packets of pot each have RFID chips. As Greg Honan, owner of Herbal Elements, another dispensary that just installed the machine, puts it: “You can really stack inventory in a safe manner in a concentrated area.” And, since the federal government doesn't allow debit or credit cards to be used in marijuana-related transactions, all purchases must be made in cash. Or, yep, bitcoin.

The machine, Stephen Shearin, president American Green, explains, is "a way to take something that has proven itself as a viable business model throughout the last century, and bring it into the 21st century." He told Reuters that about five ZaZZZ vending machines are currently being planned for locations in Seattle and around Washington state, with more slated for Colorado, California, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Alaska.

So what was the first purchase made from this game-changing marvel of modern technology? A single gram of pot, sold for $15, under the name "Girl Scout Cookies."

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.
    Perspective

    America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

    Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed.

  2. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  3. Equity

    What Happened to Crime in Camden?

    Often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, Camden, New Jersey, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.

  4. photo: Protesters gather at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California on June 3.
    Environment

    Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth

    U.S. cities are now seeing the critical role that public space plays during a crisis. But severe budget cuts are looming. Can investing in parks be part of the urban recovery?

  5. Four New York City police officers arresting a man.
    Equity

    The Price of Defunding the Police

    A new report fleshes out the controversial demand to cut police department budgets and reallocate those funds into healthcare, housing, jobs, and schools. Will that make communities of color safer?

×