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January 31, 2008 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Latest In L.A.: Pot Vending Machine

Medical Marijuana Dispensary Offers Goods 24/7 - at a Discount

By Daisy Nguyen, Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The city that popularized the fast-food drive-thru has a new innovation: 24-hour medical marijuana vending machines.

Patients suffering from chronic pain, loss of appetite and other ailments that marijuana is said to alleviate can get their pot with a dose of convenience at the Herbal Nutrition Center, where a large machine will dole out the drug round the clock.

"Convenient access, lower prices, safety, anonymity," inventor and owner Vincent Mehdizadeh said, extolling the benefits of the machine.

But federal drug agents say the invention may need unplugging.

"Somebody owns (it), it's on a property and somebody fills it," said DEA Special Agent Jose Martinez. "Once we find out where it's at, we'll look into it and see if they're violating laws."

At least three dispensaries in the city, including two belonging to Mehdizadeh, have installed vending machines to distribute the drug to people who carry cards authorizing marijuana use.

Mehdizadeh said he spent seven months developing and patenting the black, armored box, which he calls the "PVM," or prescription vending machine.

The computerized machine requires fingerprint identification and a prepaid card with a magnetic stripe. Once the card and fingerprint are verified, a bright green envelope with the pot drops down a slot.

Mehdizadeh says any user approved for medical marijuana and registered in a computer database at his dispensaries can prepurchase the drug, then use the machine to pick it up.

At the Timothy Leary Medical Dispensary in the San Fernando Valley, the vending machine is accessible only during business hours. An employee there said the machine was introduced about five months ago and provides speedy service.

"It helps a lot of patients who are in a lot of pain and don't want to wait around to get help," Robert Schwartz said. "It's been working out great."

Mehdizadeh said he sought the advice of doctors, and decided to limit the amount of marijuana per user to an ounce per week. Each purchase from the machine yields one-eighth or one-fourth of an ounce.

By eliminating a vendor behind the counter, he said, the machine offers users lower drug prices. The eighth-ounce packet would cost about $40 -- $20 less than the average price at other dispensaries.

Marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which does not recognize the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.

The Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies have been actively shutting down major medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state over the last two years and charging their operators with felony distribution.

Mehdizadeh said the Herbal Nutrition Center was the target of a federal raid in December. He said no arrests were made and no charges have been filed against him.

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