The purpose of a machine is to improve or replace. Some machines we use because they’re more efficient than using our hands: a toothbrush, a hammer. In the case of a vending machine, the purpose is to do what a person can’t or won’t — or what someone else doesn’t want to pay them to do.
The allure of a vending machine is that unlike a person, a vending machine won’t complain about doing hard and dirty work in the forlorn places vending machines are generally found. In bus stops, airport terminals, hotel lobbies at 4 a.m., hospital cafeterias after visiting hours and anywhere with fluorescent lighting, linoleum floors and plastic seating, the vending machine rules supreme.
Berkeley Patients Group, where I find myself staring a marijuana vending machine in its “face” on a recent February evening, is none of those places. I’m standing just inside the dispensary’s front door, doing a regular dance — one step forward, two back — so as to not obstruct the people coming and going to the well-staffed counter a few steps to my left. Some of the customers coming and going give the machine a half-interested glance while dodging me before going to the counter to make their purchase.
I want to join them, but I cannot. Today, I must avoid human interaction. Today, it is me, the machine and the question of whether punching at a touch-screen before feeding a locked box a stack of $20 bills is the future of cannabis retail.
An ancient concept, vending machines are still new to cannabis. Several times, several companies have arrived with the promise to bring machine-like convenience and reliability to marijuana — one, Medbox, was briefly the marijuana industry’s first billion-dollar company, before an SEC investigation revealed it to be the flash in a penny-stock fraud — but none have quite stuck, says Sean Luse, BPG’s chief operating officer.
The device at BPG is from Grasshopper Kiosks, an Oakland, California-based company — which, according to Luse and based upon a few web searches, appears to be the only firm currently inhabiting the weed vending-machine space, a minor miracle considering the depth and breadth (but mostly the breadth) of cannabusinesses one encounters. Luse says Grasshopper’s machine is “significantly more sophisticated” than first-generation machines BPG experimented with a decade ago.
“We’re always looking at our operation and trying to make it more effective, to give people what they want and to do more of it quicker,” he says. So when the company approached BPG with this model in the months leading up to the January 1 launch of recreational sales, Luse decided to “give it a whirl.”
Taller and maybe a tiny bit more narrow than the soda-dispensers from high school, Grasshopper machines have a touch-screen menu that also plays a helpful tutorial video, should you be unsure how to operate a touch screen with helpful pictorial and giant font-sized instructions. (The video, it turns out, is shot here at BPG, on this very device, so there’s no room for confusion.)
According to the company, the machine recorded 70 transactions on January 1, the first day in business. It’s unclear what the transactions earned or what this model cost BPG. Luse declined to provide details, describing the arrangement as similar to a store obtaining a cash register or another piece of hardware.
Grasshopper themselves proved unwilling or unable to discuss the situation. A fellow by the name of Jeff Doerr, who answers the phone when I call the company’s 877 number, says he’ll have the company’s VP of marketing give me a call. She doesn’t. I email Doerr a few times and get no response. I wonder if I’d have fared better with a machine.
No matter. Here I am, the machine and me. When I visit, BPG’s machine has just 18 products, all there for me to see on the screen: a few eighths, a couple grams, some hash, two prerolls, some CO2 vape cartridges and a battery. Nothing like the five-milligram edibles I was banking on for a relaxed bicycle ride home. No concentrates, and no way to see for myself if the flower’s still fresh.
I glance wistfully over at the other patrons, chatting with the budtenders. I ponder what I want. I ponder too slowly for the machine’s liking. The words “ARE YOU STILL THERE?” flash across the screen, like a teenager seeing if her boo on the other end of a four-hour-long phone call hasn’t fallen asleep.
I finally settle on a $12.75 preroll. I put in a $20. Grasshopper responds with just the faintest mechanical whirr. Out comes my change, and at the bottom, in a padded tray, is a plastic tube with a joint in it, as promised. (The receipt I get via email.)
The rest of the work is up to me. At eye-level, there’s a stack of plastic childproof bags. Written in label-maker are instructions for customers to please grab one, so I put my preroll inside before leaving the store, so as to comply with state law. I fumble for a minute trying to get it open before giving up, wrapping my preroll in the unopened bag, and shoving the joint-rollup into a pocket. Nobody seems to notice.
The machines’ value-adds are advertised as inventory control, sales data and reliability. Luse tells me they’re popular mostly during the dispensary’s busy hours, when someone doesn’t want to bother with a line. From a consumer’s standpoint, I can see the potential value, but it’s still potential.
A machine like this would be a welcome addition to a bar, a hospital lobby or an airport terminal, I think after I leave the store. Airports have vending machines that sell iPads and Beats headphones, so why not a few dollars’ worth of cannabis? The second syllable of “cannabis” isn’t yet formed in my head when I realize the answer. Duh: it’s weed, where nothing is ever easy and the simplest transactions are made complicated.
Look at the lengths I had to go just to get in this store. Security guards, surveillance, an ID check. All of those functions would have to somehow be included into a machine —which would then have to be approved by the state for placement in a place that’s not a dispensary.
“It’s a vending machine inside a pot store?” a friend asks when I tell them what I’m doing. “What’s inside the vending machine, a littler pot store?” Well, yes, technically, now that you mention it. In a present where you can have cannabis delivered to you via smartphone, and where you have to pass a (human) security screening just to get to the controls, marijuana vending machines feel like an era-bridging anachronism, both past and ahead of its time.
Originally published in Issue 31 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE
TELL US, would you by marijuana from a vending machine?