MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Los Angeles, one of the city's medical marijuana storefronts has come up with a way of selling its product, a new way of selling its product. It's installed a heavily-armored, heavily-guarded vending machine that dispenses prescription pot - that's legal under California law.
But as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, Federal drug agents may have other ideas.
(Soundbite of song "In A Gadda Da Vida")
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: That's the vibe a lot of people still think of when you say marijuana. And the inside of this Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary, the Health Nutrition Center, would only reinforce that stereotype. In the back room, large canisters of marijuana gleam in glass cabinets. A menu describes the kind of pot the center is dispensing. Cherry bomb and OG Kush seem to be popular choices. A slightly limp banner hangs on the wall proclaiming different smokes for different folks.
Vincent Mehdizadeh is not that. Dressed in a business suit and looking like the lawyer he is, the 29-year-old is showing me the business venture that has made him temporarily famous.
Mr. VINCENT MEHDIZADEH: So that's verifying me. It says approved for vending.
BATES: The it he's talking about is a very sophisticated vending machine he's designed that will dispense marijuana recommendations. They're not called prescriptions. Mehdizadeh's creation looks like Darth Vader designed it. It's heavily armored and all black with cool blue LED buttons, and it relies on a unique system that identifies the patient via a swipe card and a biometric finger scan.
Mr. MEHDIZADEH: And that click was the medicine dropping.
BATES: At the base of the machine, where you'd normally retrieve your can of Coke or your bag of pretzels, Mehdizadeh holds a palm-sized green box with a snap closure. It almost looks like a tiny briefcase. Open it up, and the Nutrition Health Center's business card is inside with, of course, the dope.
So this in an eighth of an ounce right here of marijuana?
Mr. MEHDIZADEH: That's correct.
BATES: Which ironically enough, this package is kind of the way they did in the '60s in a Ziploc bag before it goes into your new high-tech little briefcase here.
Mr. MEHDIZADEH: Exactly.
BATES: In order for the patient to get his weekly or monthly allotment of marijuana, he first has to consult a doctor. Then, the patient takes the doctor's recommendation to a dispensary. There are several here in Los Angeles. And there's no shared database, so in theory, someone could game the system by going from place to place, accruing quite a stash. Vincent Mehdizadeh has designed a computer program that syncs with the swipe card to prevent double dipping, even if he's sometimes conflicted about what to call the product the machine dispenses.
Mr. MEHDIZADEH: Each time, if I click on my name, it literally shows me a picture of when I was at the machine - dates, times, everything, the increments, the type of weed, marijuana...
Mr. MEHDIZADEH: ...product, medicine, is shown there.
BATES: Outside Mehdizadeh's business, patient Robert Miko says getting marijuana from a machine instead of a person will be very appealing to some people. Robert is taking marijuana instead of pharmaceuticals to help him with anger management.
Mr. ROBERT MIKO (Patient): I'm friendlier, I love people, no anger. You know, I look at, I look at life and I love life now, you know?
BATES: That's fine with the local authorities. Since 1996, it's been legal to use marijuana medically here with a doctor's recommendation, but the federal government has a different philosophy. They say it is illegal to use marijuana in the United States, period. So that shiny new machine dispensing marijuana in Vince Mehdizadeh's center may be there for only a short time. The Feds always confiscate marijuana after a raid, even when they have to use bolt cutters and a can opener to get to it.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.