Currently there is no law prohibiting the use of electronic-benefit transfer (EBT) cards, i.e. welfare benefits, to buy marijuana in Colorado and Washington State. According to the National Review Online, in the six months following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, people used their EBT cards 259 times in the state’s marijuana shops.
On September 16 the House passed, on a voice vote, legislation to prevent welfare recipients from using their government-issued debit cards to purchase marijuana. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) brought attention to the issue in April, citing a loophole in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program administered by the Health and Human Services Department which prohibits recipients from using government-issued welfare debit cards at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs, but does not prohibit the purchase of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. Representative Dave Reichert (R-WA) sponsored the House bill, explaining that it is a logical extension of existing law. The bill also prohibits people from withdrawing cash from ATM machines located in stores that sell marijuana.
“The fact that some people are using welfare for weed is outrageous,” Reichert said in a statement. “While some may decide to spend their own money on drugs, we’re not going to give them a taxpayer subsidy to do it.”
Unfortunately the bill is limited in its scope, because debit-card recipients are able to withdraw cash from any bank or other ATM machine and use the money to purchase drugs. There are approximately 45,000 families in Colorado and 99,000 in Washington State who are receiving cash benefits. When Sessions raised the issue by sending a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell replied that her agency had no authority to prevent the use of benefit cards at stores that sell marijuana.
Senator Sessions plans to introduce similar legislation in the Senate, but the bill will likely not be passed and sent for the President’s signature before Congress goes into recess in preparation for the November elections.