You can now buy weed from a vending machine – just not in Denver, yet

Anna is a robot that helps dispensaries fit more points of sale into their premium-priced real estate.

Star Buds lead assistant manager Amanda Cordova opens the new Anna vending machine at their location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Star Buds lead assistant manager Amanda Cordova opens the new Anna vending machine at their location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
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Aurora is now home to a vending machine for weed.

The robot inside Star Bud’s shop on Arapahoe Road is just the second device deployed by Anna, the company behind the idea. Founder Matt Frost, who splits his time between Colorado and Massachusetts, said he dreamt up the idea about three years ago, while he was waiting in line at his local dispensary and wondered: “Where’s the automation? I go to the grocery store and there’s self-serve.”

Frost said he became “passionate” about finding a new way for customers to buy stuff inside the country’s pot shops. Today, his company has built out 24 machines that he thinks might achieve this dream.

Let’s start with some basics.

The machines that sell cannabis products in Colorado must be physically located in a dispensary. They also must be manned by dispensary staffers who check customers’ IDs for a second time after they’ve walked onto the sales floor and approve any sale; budtenders do the same thing.

Each Anna machine can hold about 1,000 individual products. Star Buds is largely stocking theirs with house-branded products and a few top sellers made by other companies.

The new Anna cannabis vending machine in Star Buds' location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

The new Anna cannabis vending machine in Star Buds' location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

From the customer’s perspective, using a vending machine might mean fast-tracking the “traditional” dispensary experience. If they know what they want, they can skip discussing strains and products with dispensary employees, get their five-pack of joints and get going.

From the dispensary’s perspective, it’s an opportunity to squeeze one more register into regulated space. The Star Buds shop in Aurora, for instance, has pretty much maxed out the registers and bud tenders it can fit into its floor plan.

“To me it’s not a vending machine,” said Josh Riggs, Star Buds’ chief operating officer. “It’s an express point of sale. It’s one more opportunity to do transactions where we have limited space.”

Anna probably is not here to end the budtender as we know it.

The modern world has long been concerned that automation may someday make human workers obsolete. The idea’s allure is strong enough that it’s influenced pop culture since 1984, at least, when “The Terminator” projected our fear of robot overlords into stark color.

But Riggs said he doubts there will ever be a day when Anna would replace his budtenders completely. There will always be customers who want to talk about a product before buying.

“The more time you spend in a dispensary, there’s something about that interaction,” he said. “Budtenders really still have a significant amount of control and power about what products people are buying.”

Star Buds COO Josh Riggs in the dispensary chain's location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Star Buds COO Josh Riggs in the dispensary chain's location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

On the other hand, robot service has become something of a trend in the current pandemic economy. There’s an appetite for limited contact and shorter wait times these days, Riggs said.

He also told us that Star Buds is just testing Anna out, but the company seems to be confident that regular customers will find value in the automated check-out process. They’re expanding into the unit next door to the current space on Arapahoe Road, and Riggs said they’re making room for three more Anna stations.

The machine could be an answer to some of Denver’s real estate limitations.

Newsflash: Commercial real estate in Denver is expensive. Even though the city has been turned on its head by the pandemic and recession, business owners are still trying to figure out creative ways to get better bangs for their buck. The Anna machines could offer some value in this regard.

Could a dispensary chain take on, say, a 300-square-foot lease and stock it with a just a machine and an employee?

“I could see that happening,” Riggs said.

He’s also thinking about some time in the distant future when Denver’s dispensary laws might significantly change: “It could be really cool to have one of these at the bar. That’s a long time away for a lot of reasons, but eventually I think that’s what you’ll see.”

Anna CEO and founder Matt Frost shows off the new cannabis vending machine recently installed in Star Buds' location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Anna CEO and founder Matt Frost shows off the new cannabis vending machine recently installed in Star Buds' location on Arapahoe Road in Aurora. Oct. 29, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Eric Escudero, spokesperson for the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, said he hasn’t heard of efforts to bring a weed vending machine into the city just yet. It would be legal, he told us, so long as it met local guidelines.

If someone wanted to set up a tiny room with just a machine inside, Escudero said, they would still have to comply with all of the regular dispensary rules. They would need security cameras, someone to check IDs, restricted access areas and more. He did say that a marijuana business specialist in his office expressed doubt that such a thing would be feasible.

But Frost, Anna’s founder, said he’s working on such a concept in Colorado, though he didn’t divulge where, or with whom.

“You’ll see that soon,” he said. “It’ll be here.”

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