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Will New Technology Kill a Pot Dispensary’s Buzz?




I am generally no fan of shopping. Not for fear of being tased or pepper-sprayed, and not even because of my disdain of spending money; I just find the whole shopping experience kind of soul-crushing. To minimize crowds, I time my grocery-shopping to be either early-morning or late-evening, and if I ever have to go to the mall, I truly have to steel myself against the horror.

The main exception to my reluctance to shop is going to the marijuana dispensary to pick up my medicine. When I step past the security area into the display room, I generally feel like a kid in a, well, a marijuana shop. But now, according to a recent article in the L.A. Business Journal, this rare shopping joy may be threatened.

A former manager of law offices and pot dispensaries has invented the MedBox, a pot vending machine. According to the Business Journal:

[C]ustomers come into the store and meet with a sales clerk. Each customer who presents a valid prescription receives a membership card (dispensaries are all non-profit cooperatives) and has his or her index finger scanned. Also, the sales clerk takes a credit card or cash and loads money on the membership card, similar to a prepaid phone or gift card.

When the customer needs marijuana, he or she comes to the machine in the dispensary. Using a touchscreen, the customer selects the type and amount of cannabis. A card swipe and finger scan confirm the customer’s identity, and the machine dispenses the medicine much like any other vending machine.

For the cooperative, the machine reduces staff costs. The cooperative still needs a sales clerk to sign up new customers, load money on cards and restock the machine.

The MedBox machine, including a climate control unit to maintain drug freshness, costs $40,000.

I was going to head over to my dispensary to ask the staff there what they thought about this new technology, but I found I couldn’t motivate myself off the couch. I have previously written about the pernicious nature of automation in the service industry, so I figured I should give this some thought. After properly medicating, I sat down to puzzle this one out. (Yes, I will take on any assignment for loyal Frying Pan readers, even an assignment as, ahem, kush as this one.)

Cutting out the human contact at the heart of the dispensary visit seems insane to me, and not only because this is the most human contact many of us have. I have come to rely on the insight and the suggestions of the knowledgeable staff. “What’s new that you recommend?” is always my first question. The staff will present me with a few options (narrowed, of course, by the preferred strain), describing the taste and qualities of each, and pointing out key differences, like the color, smell, and the size of the buds. As the effects of this medicine are much more subjective than most, getting this description is critical to making an informed decision. Am I really going to trust a machine to tell me which varietal is ideal for me?

And what about all of the other products dispensaries offer? The machine is clearly not set up to handle the wide range of baked goods offered by most dispensaries, and other edibles, like candies, sodas, butter, and even hot sauce.

We haven’t even gotten to the technical aspects yet. Are patients – whose legal status remains in limbo as the states and the feds fight things out – really going to want to hand over their fingerprints to a corporate entity? And are dispensary managers going to make this big capital investment given even L.A.’s regulatory uncertainty, when businesses need stability in order to make investments? And will patients really be able to read the small text on the machines, given the (presumed) prevalence of glaucoma among the population?

So what problem is this trying to solve, really? According to the Business Journal, MedBox will cut down on patients reselling their medicine (still somehow a concern, even though the illegal sale of pot has naturally plummeted since dispensaries began operating). But the purported danger of resale is merely a factor of the volume sold, and most dispensaries already have policies limiting daily or weekly sales to a patient. Is it just that we fetishize technology, and all novel uses for vending machines? No, we’re not Japan.

So really what we’re left with is yet another cost-cutting approach, designed to make the staff redundant. (They want to eliminate the primary reason that most of us belong to one cooperative rather than another.) This, of course, just at the same time that dispensary workers are joining together to improve their working conditions. (I am here discounting some of the more, um, paranoid theories that MedBox is merely a stalking horse for other vending machine companies, to increase sales of Doritos and Funyons.)

Sad to say that some dispensaries do seem to be jumping on board this Afghan Trainwreck, with the Business Journal reporting that 20 L.A. County dispensaries have purchased MedBoxes. I hope that patients will push back, and let dispensary managers know how valuable their staffs are. Maybe we can even get an iconic figure – and recent special guest at LAANE’s annual dinner – to lend his voice to the effort. Cheech, call me: Help spark up the resistance!

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