American Green

American Green Machine (Courtesy of American Green)

Coin-Op Pot: American Green makes vending machines for cannabis a reality

Until recently, the idea of a vending machine that dispensed OG Kush like a can of cola was the type of thing one might dream of after one too many tokes.

Now, thanks to American Green, it’s real.

If the name of the company sounds familiar, it might be because American Green was in the news last month for buying the town of Nipton, Calif., for $5 million with an eye toward turning it into some kind of marijuana tourist destination. American Green has frequently made bold plays in the cannabis sector. It is currently the largest publicly traded cannabis company in the U.S., and its latest vending-machine endeavor isn’t its first foray into the market, either.

In 2015, the company unveiled ZaZZZ, a precursor to its current line of vending machines. Former American Green president and current company consultant Stephan Shearin is blunt in his assessment of where ZaZZZ went wrong.

“It was an abject failure, quite honestly,” he says. “They say experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, and we got a lot of experience, believe me.”

As Shearin sees it, there were three main reasons ZaZZZ didn’t last long. One was that with the cannabis industry still in a more nascent form, patients were eager to converse with budtenders and didn’t trust a machine to help them decide what to purchase. Another was that the now-ubiquitous presence of smartphones in everyday life was still taking hold in 2015, meaning that some customers were wary of interacting with the touch screen that serves as the vending machine’s primary interface. Lastly, ZaZZZ models were one-size-fits-all, which meant many of the dispensaries located in out-of-the-way places or slightly decrepit buildings faced logistical issues in installing the units.

In their new incarnation, these vending machines seem ripe with possibility. At a demonstration earlier this year at the Cannabis Business Summit & Expo in Oakland, units on display gathered many curious industry insiders. The question, of course, is how does one ensure an automated unit doesn’t dispense cannabis (or alcohol, or firearms — all products American Green says its vending machines are built for) to the wrong person?

The answer is biometrics — specifically, vein-reading.

“It’s military-grade technology,” says American Green’s Director of Marketing, Mike Rosati. It’s what they’re using to get onto the bases overseas.”

Indeed, the company responsible for the vending machine’s tech is M2SYS, one of the U.S. military’s primary suppliers of biometrics. But before American Green settled on a vein-reader, which reads an individual’s infrared biometric signature, they did look at other technologies available, such as facial recognition software.

“It’s very effective,” Sherain says, “but it does get challenged sometimes by low light, and it can produce false negatives in some situations — like, if you have identical twins and one of them is a felon prohibited from buying what’s in the machine.”

Shearin also offers slightly less fantastical examples, like a customer who has shaved or grown a beard, or someone who’s wearing glasses instead of contacts.

American Green’s reasons for dismissing fingerprint biometrics ran along the same lands. Not only are the false positives and negatives far higher with fingerprint tech, but the more practical issues of what happens when some cuts their finger and so forth were numerous.

Ultimately, it was decided that vein-reading technology was the way to go. Almost sensing the inevitable question, Shearin says that any visions of a dark scenario whereby someone attempts to use an amputated finger to access a machine are unfounded.

“It stops working if, for whatever reason, your veins stop having blood flow through them, so it doesn’t subscribe to situations where a finger is being used improperly.”

The new machines — there are currently models in Anchorage, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the Bay Area — offer other bells and whistles, too.

For instance, there is the opportunity for a dispensary to pair with a grower or product manufacturer to advertise on the machine’s sizeable screen when it’s not actively engaged.

“The feedback has been positive in that regard,” Rosati says of the advertising potential. “Not only could there be advertising for the various brands and products that are carried in the dispensary, but for each product — say they pick a certain strain of flower — they could have a personality at the dispensary or even the farmer who grew it do a quick 20- or 30-second video just talking about the high points as a way to further promote it.”

Shearin pushes the idea even further, suggesting that if San Francisco were to hypothetically have 200 machines installed around the city, an outside company could seamlessly plug an ad on the feed of all the units at once. It’s not hard to envision an organization like Outside Lands promoting its annual music festival in Golden Gate Park to patients who likely dig music as much as pot. To be able to target a demographic that has, up until now, not been collectively accessible, should have many companies salivating.

Until that day comes, Shearin is content to promote the simple truth of what he calls “our McDonald’s drive-through society.” These machines are convenient, and no one loves convenience quite like cannabis consumers.

“Its pretty remarkable. Now I can stick my finger in and have this machine welcome me back faster than I get my ID out of my wallet and ask me what my birthday is.”