dagga dispensary treads new ground

LOS ANGELES - Vending machines have long been used to hawk everything from Skittles and sandwiches to juice and java, but now one is being used to offer a new product: medical marijuana.

Not just anyone can pop some coins in and get some bud. The machine, developed by Los Angeles medical-marijuana dispensary owner Vincent Mehdizadeh, gives up to an ounce of dagga a week only to pre-approved patients.

Los Angeles is not the only place where dagga laws and enforcement have conflicted in recent years. In 2005, Denver city officials legalised dagga in small amounts for adults aged 21 and older. But many Denverites were cited for marijuana possession because dagga is still illegal under state and federal laws.

The specialised machine installed on Monday at Herbal Nutrition Centre - a medical-marijuana dispensary on La Cienega Boulevard - requires fingerprint identification as well as a special prepaid card.

"I wanted to benefit the industry," said Mehdizadeh, who owns two dispensaries. "We have legitimate patients that need us."

Mehdizadeh's machine is far from the standard potato-chip model. The black, armoured box is bolted to the floor at the entrance to the dispensary.

It has a card swiper, a video camera that also takes a snapshot of any user and adds it to a database, and is protected by armed security guards.

Beginning today, Mehdizadeh said, he will start fingerprinting patients who want to use the machine, which will dispense five types of dagga: Platinum Kush, Fire OG, Bubba Kush, Purple Kush and Wild Cherry.

Mehdizadeh says the machine offers greater convenience to patients seeking the drug to ease chronic pain and sleep problems.

But even devoted defenders of medical marijuana question the idea of dagga vending machines.

"This shows great entrepreneurship - but opens up terrific avenues of ridicule," said Allen St Pierre, executive director of the Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Mehdizadeh said the machines could also allow dispensaries to sell dagga at lower prices because of reduced overhead costs.

He said it would avert the hazard of robberies that store fronts face. The Valley has seen 13 medical-marijuana dispensary robberies in the past two years, including two this month.

But others are wary of the impersonal technology, including Dale Gieringer, director of NORML, a nonprofit lobby that opposes dagga prohibition.

Gieringer said personal interaction is a necessary part of the medical-marijuana buying process.

"The odour of cannabis often tells a lot about its qualities and also, if you inspect it closely you can sometimes tell whether it has mould and things like that," said Gieringer, a co-author of the state's Compassionate Use Law.