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Green Machine

An ex-Portland cabbie and candidate develops the first marijuana vending machine.

These snacks are stocked in five spring-loaded rows. A computer touch screen shows what's inside each package, with prices ranging from $20 to $100 for each product. A customer punches in the item she wants, and inserts cash—along with a driver's license showing she's 21.

It looks like any vending machine in a corporate lunchroom. But the ZaZZZ is the first vending machine to dispense marijuana edibles.

The machines are coming to Oregon, too, if voters approve Measure 91, which is similar to the Colorado law. And if the ZaZZZ arrives here, it would be a homecoming for the company's co-founder and chairman, David Gwyther.

Gwyther, 67, is a former stockbroker, investment banker and business lobbyist. If you remember his name at all, it's because he ran for the Portland City Council in 2012, when he was a Radio Cab driver. He sued Oregon Public Broadcasting during the campaign for cutting him out of a radio debate. He finished the race with 2 percent of the vote.

Today, Gwyther is chairman of American Green, which is publicly traded and valued at about $50 million, according to company officials.

Gwyther says the company is planning to expand into the 23 states with medical marijuana laws, as well as states legalizing weed for recreational use.

"Yeah, we'll have machines here," Gwyther says. "We've got so many orders right now, we're just trying to keep up with them."

Gwyther says he's been advocating the legalization of weed since 1970, when he co-published The Cultivator's Handbook of Marijuana. At the time, Gwyther faced federal charges that he had attempted to disrupt his Vietnam War draft board meeting in Eugene. He tried to arrest members of his draft board for attempting to force him to commit war crimes.

"I've been very lucky that I've lived long enough to see this happen and be able to benefit from it," he says.

The concept of the ZaZZZ machine has been in development since 2009, but prohibition was the last obstacle to producing it. "It didn't really make sense until cannabis became legal in Colorado," Gwyther says. "This is the first time I've ever been able to really put together something that was built to last."

At the moment, the climate-controlled machines sell only marijuana edibles, but the company hopes one day to sell weed directly from the machines.

American Green president Stephen Shearin says the machines will help cut down on lines in dispensaries as well as appeal to customers who want to simplify their purchases and not deal with clerks, whom he calls "budtenders."

"It's not necessarily about the business model, it's that it's new and exciting for the customer," Shearin says.

Gwyther says the machine's technology will also make it attractive to retailers and, he believes, state regulators.

"Our card [readers] verify the buyer's age, which is the only thing that really matters these days," Gwyther says. "The machines are all going to be in locations that are already certified by the state. We're not going to go into 7-Eleven."

Gwyther certainly has an interest in seeing Measure 91 pass. But neither he nor his company has donated money toward the measure's passage.

Instead, Gwyther's political efforts have been to elect a legislative candidate, Democrat H. Gerritt Rosenthal of Tualatin. 

Rosenthal is running in Oregon House District 37, challenging incumbent Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn). American Green has donated $5,000, the biggest of the cash contributions to Rosenthal's campaign. 

Gwyther himself is working as a consultant to Rosenthal, donating almost $30,000 in in-kind contributions, including advertising and time helping advise the campaign.

Rosenthal and Gwyther have been friends since 1968, which is the reason for Gwyther's involvement. Rosenthal—an environmental consultant who's run for the same House seat three times before—says he's backing Measure 91 and has no apologies for accepting the contribution from American Green.

Rosenthal says he has rarely taken campaign contributions from businesses because he's opposed to corporate money in politics. But he says his race is not one Democrats have targeted for victory.

"I'm not really in the 'in group,'" Rosenthal says.

Gwyther says he's confident Measure 91 will pass in November, transforming Oregon and certainly helping his business.

"We're stocking up as fast as we can just to build the machines," he says. "Then we're getting into growing. That's the future. I think we are going to do very, very well the next five years.”