A more traditional vending machine. (Elaine Thompson, AP)

Pot vending machine making debut in Colorado

A few months ago we wrote about the wow-factor of marijuana vending machines: Their legality, how they work and why some feel these machines represent a future that revolves around convenience, control and automation.

But those pot vending machines sit behind the counter, and only the budtenders would have access to them — taking something away from a consumer’s experience of, “Whoa, I just bought marijuana from a machine.”

A different kind of machine, one customers can access, will debut in Colorado this weekend. It’s called ZaZZZ, and maker American Green calls it “an automated, age-verifying, climate-controlled marijuana dispensing machine.” The machine will make its debut at a private, invite-only event in Eagle County on April 12, but it will be installed inside Avon medical dispensary Herbal Elements on April 13 — a week before 4/20 — though it might not be functioning and available to customers until American Green and Herbal Elements feel it’s ready.

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We spoke with Stephen Shearin, COO of American Green parent Tranzbyte, about their creation. What will the interface look and feel like? How will consumers benefit from the experience? And when can we try it at Herbal Elements? Read on.

The Cannabist: Can you walk me through the experience of using a ZaZZZ?

Stephen Shearin: We imagine it filling the needs based on the dispensary and their client needs/wants ultimately, but for now, I see someone who knows what they want approaching the machine, purchasing and departing — all within regulatory guidelines, but without the counter lines. Great for shy folk as well. Swipe ID and get verified. Select products and pay. Retrieve products and depart using appropriate bagging solution.

The Cannabist: How does it correctly check the identity of the user to the ID he or she is using? Does it also check medical marijuana licenses?

Stephen Shearin: It uses the same technology that checks age/ID fraud under the Control Meth Act. Your identity is confirmed against active biometrics. The machine on display this weekend will not be taking medical cards, but we are prepared to integrate. That’s part of the ensuing time for testing in a controlled environment before full public release. With that said, people will be authorized in medical facilities before entry. Hence, internal checks will only bolster security and accounting for state and dispensary alike.

The Cannabist: The first box will be installed in a functioning shop on Sunday. Will it work for both medical and recreational consumers?

Stephen Shearin: Herbal Elements is medicinal only so no to the rec. Important to add that while it will make its way down there Sunday, it won’t be in public use until we are confident that we have met all necessary regulatory guidelines.

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The Cannabist: What are the advantages of using the ZaZZZ from a consumer perspective, other than the “how cool” factor?

Stephen Shearin: First, think of automated checkouts at the market. Not for everyone, but for those who use it, they love it. Next consider a regular or perhaps a somewhat shy customer who is capable of self-service. Finally (for this list but certainly not all that we believe can be achieved) consider proprietary products that can be introduced without the dispensary having to change its displays — or manufacturers being able to put products in and see sales for them and the dispensary without being part of the normal PO system. No hold up for net 30 or cash constraints, ZaZZZ lets the show go on in those cases.

The Cannabist: And why would a shop owner want one of these in his or her shop?

Stephen Shearin: Efficiencies, better client experience when employees don’t have to hop from conversation to payment facility and, yes, the wow factor in the beginning. I don’t think we’ve yet conceived of where it can go, but what it does already has been met with positive feedback and anticipation. Did I mention proprietary products?

The Cannabist: This area of direct-access vending machines in the marijuana space is a controversial one. What kind of reaction are you and Herbal Elements getting from the community, the police, the state?

Stephen Shearin: Understandable concerns of course. In no way do we see versions 1, 2 or 3 sitting in a public square. It may never and that’s not what the business was built on per se. On the contrary, we believe that the process will enhance legal sales facilities in ensuring that controlled substances (so far as we can control at the time of sale) are dispensed solely into the hands of those who qualify legally — let alone proprietary biometrics that are yet to come.

The Cannabist: And do you envision a time in the U.S. where these machines will exist outside pot shops and dispensaries?

Stephen Shearin: Ha. Well, I envision a lot of things. I envisioned something like this 20 years ago but didn’t think I’d live to see the end of prohibition against a plant of such great promise. With that said, in the right place with the right controls, why not? People buy alcoholic drinks at festivals and games. It could happen. But at this point we don’t write the law, we just abide by it.