Economy

House Passes ‘Needs Not Weed’ Act Stigmatizing Welfare Recipients As Druggies

CREDIT: AP

A bill barring marijuana dispensaries from accepting electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards from public assistance recipients passed the House of Representatives on an unrecorded voice vote late Tuesday night.

The Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act, sponsored by Rep. David Reichert (R-WA), is a response to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Congress has long since banned recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly known as welfare) from using their cards at the register or at ATMs in casinos, liquor stores, and strip clubs, and Reichert wanted to fold marijuana stores into that class of forbidden transactions. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) plans to introduce accompanying legislation in the Senate.

Nothing in the bill prevents a beneficiary from withdrawing EBT funds at another ATM and using the cash at any of the establishments Reichert and his supports find morally dubious, according to Mashable.

Recipients of anti-poverty aid are frequently stigmatized as financial degenerates despite repeated findings from both public audits and private studies that welfare and food assistance recipients are not only no more likely to buy drugs than the rest of the population, but in fact less likely to spend their limited means on drugs.

In Maine last winter, Gov. Paul LePage’s (R) promised crackdown on abuse of welfare funds found that EBT transactions at bars and strip clubs accounted for just “two-tenths of 1 percent of total purchases and ATM withdrawals.” By comparison, 9 percent of Mainers overall admit using illicit drugs.

In Tennessee this summer, a new drug testing program for welfare recipients found one drug user out of more than 800 people tested. That one-eighth of 1 percent drug use rate among Tennessee’s TANF recipients is 64 times lower than the overall rate of drug use among Tennesseeans: 8 percent.

Utah’s drug testing program spent $30,000 to catch exactly 12 people with positive drug tests on its welfare roles — a rate of 2.5 percent among those who took a chemical test and 0.2 percent among overall welfare applicants. About 2 percent of Florida welfare recipients failed drug tests compared to an 8 percent drug use rate overall in the state.

Nationwide, welfare recipients spend far more of their budget on food, housing, and transportation (77 percent) than do other families (65 percent), and less on eating out and entertainment. The national drug use rate is 8 percent, compared to an estimated drug abuse rate of 3.6 percent among welfare recipients.

Some states appear to be heeding the evidence that public benefits recipients aren’t blowing their meager allowances on drugs and softening the rules linking the drug war to anti-poverty policy. In the spring, Missouri repealed its lifetime food stamps ban for those convicted on a drug charge, leaving just 8 states with such bans on the books.

Marijuana’s therapeutic properties are now widely accepted by the medical community. The drug is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and roughly 900,000 military veterans in the U.S. receive EBT cards. A specialized strain of marijuana that does not provide a recreational “high” has been found effective at treating an otherwise untreatable seizure disorder in children.

In Washington, where there have been two incidents of EBT cards being used at pot shops this summer, there is already a law on the books prohibiting the cards’ use at any establishment where people under the age of 18 are barred.