Although the federal government prohibits welfare recipients from using their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to buy liquor, wine, beer, cigarettes, tobacco products or even vitamins, in the states of Colorado and Washington where recreational marijuana is legal, welfare benefits can be used to pay for weed. Oddly enough, while EBT cardholders cannot use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy, for example, pet food, or paper products, and they cannot use them in strip clubs or casinos, currently they can use taxpayer funded welfare benefits to get stoned.
Ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), sought clarity regarding the apparent lack of logic when it comes to welfare and recreational marijuana. A letter penned to Congress by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell explains the conundrum. Apparently, there is no law stating that welfare recipients can use their benefits to purchase recreational weed, but no legal language is in effect that prohibits such a purchase. Therefore, recreational marijuana dispensaries in Colorado and Washington are not barred from accepting EBT cards as payment.
Clearly, this taxpayer-funded loophole for recreational weed is an oversight by the federal government, which can withhold welfare funds from states if they allow EBT cards to be used for lap dances, but has made no provision for legalized recreational marijuana. In her letter, Burwell stated, “HHS has no authority to prescribe policies and practices for the states to implement in order to prohibit the use of TANF benefit cards at marijuana stores.” However, she also acknowledged that this was problematic stating, “…any inappropriate expenditure of public funds is a cause for concern.” In addition, she pointed to the fact that individual states have the authority to adjust their protocols regarding marijuana dispensaries. In fact, Colorado lawmakers are currently examining legislation that would prevent the use of EBT cards to purchase marijuana from dispensaries in the state.
Although the U.S. House of Representative previously introduced similar legislation, Senator Sessions is planning to introduce additional legislation that will close the “welfare for weed” loophole. In addition, he intends to hawk eye HHS to make sure that the government agency takes the “steps necessary to stop this dangerous misuse of taxpayer-funded benefits.” According to Sessions, the “guiding principle” for welfare benefits is that they should be “reserved for those in real need.”
Currently welfare recipients are prohibited from using their taxpayer funded EBT cards to purchase many common household items. The restricted item list includes everything from alcohol and “luxury items” such as steak, soft drinks and ice cream to nonfood items that include household supplies, cosmetics and “grooming items.” Even oddly specific federal restrictions are in place such as the one which allows special cakes to be paid for by EBT provided that the decorations on the cake that are “non-edible” do not constitute more than 50 percent of the cost of the cake.
Given the federal list of EBT purchase restrictions, logic dictates that recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington would also fall under the category of a welfare “luxury item.” With an increasing number of states eying the tax revenue that legalized recreational marijuana can generate, the “welfare for weed” loophole will need to be resolved sooner than later.
By Alana Marie Burke