The federal government can’t stop welfare recipients from using their EBT cards to buy weed, the head of Health and Humans Services said in September.
State governments can ban use of EBT cards at cannabis establishments, HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said. But lawmakers have yet to do so at the federal level.
Burwell’s explanation came in response to a question from U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama. Burwell said the federal government can limit funding to states that allow welfare recipients to use their cards at liquor stores, strip clubs, and casinos, but not marijuana stores.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational weed, and so far those are the only two places where the federal policy matters. Colorado lawmakers are already drafting a bill to close the EBT “loophole” there.
“In fact states have the flexibility to prevent TANF assistance from being used in any type of establishment they deem inappropriate,” Burwell wrote, referring to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal welfare program for families with children.
Sessions said he’s working on legislation in the Senate to close the loophole at the federal level. House Republicans have already passed a similar bill.
Letting welfare recipients use their cards at pot shops actually makes sense. Many poor people have medical conditions best treated with cannabis, and EBT may be the only way they can pay for it.
People who receive General Assistance payments can sometimes withdraw the cash from an ATM and use it to buy weed. But the rules vary from state to state, and that isn’t always possible.
There are good reasons to prevent welfare recipients from buying booze with their EBT cards or gambling with the money. Some are addicts, and the government doesn’t want to fund their habits.
But that rationale doesn’t hold up with marijuana. Weed is the safest, least addictive recreational drug, and it’s used as medicine by many people.
Still, “welfare for weed” doesn’t come across well with voters, and conservative lawmakers oppose it for obvious reasons.
“The federal government current spends roughly $750 billion each year on means-tested welfare programs across 80 different accounts,” Sessions said. “This money is administered by a vast, sprawling bureaucracy with little oversight and no moral vision. Surely we can all agree that the guiding principle ought to be that benefits are reserved for those in real need.”