Blog Post #5: Marijuana and Welfare Benefits

By Amanda R. Bedford

Marijuana consumption in the United States has grown in popularity since it first was brought to the United States by the Spaniards in 1545.[1]Celebrities, such as, Martha Stewart and Michael Bloomberg, have recently revealed their recreational use of marijuana.[2] As often with social change, policy and legal change are slow to follow. Today, states continue to maintain limited control over marijuana laws,[3] such as decriminalizing the drug for medical use.[4] States like Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, have all chosen to legalize marijuana for recreational home use.[5] Recently, two new marijuana bills have been presented to the House. The first bill is commonly known as the ‘No Welfare for Weed Act of 2014’.[6]Representative Paul Gosar from Arizona sponsored this Act, and it is officially labeled H.R. 4142.[7] The bill proposes to prohibit the use of electronic bank transfer cards, also known as EBT cards, to purchase marijuana.[8] Specifically, the bill states that it will amend the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 by prohibiting welfare benefits to be used in purchasing marijuana merchandise.[9] Moreover, the bill proposes to disallow the use of electronic benefit transfer cards from being used at “any store that offers marijuana for sale, and for other purposes.”[10]

The second bill, known as the ‘Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act’ or H.R.4137,[11] prohibits “assistance provided under the program of block grants to States for temporary assistance for needy families from being accessed through the use of an electronic benefit transfer card at any store that offers marijuana for sale.”[12] H.R. 4137 has passed the House and was referred to the Committee on Finance for further evaluation after moving to the Senate.[13] Opponents of both bills say they are just further evidential markers of “influenc[ing] [the] conservative media’s lengthy campaign to shame and mock low-income Americans for accepting government assistance.”[14]

In contrast, proponents of both bills say that prohibiting or limiting certain items from purchase with government assistance is not a new concept.[15] For example, it became illegal in 2012 to use EBT cards in strip clubs, casinos, and liquor stores.[16] Furthermore, sponsors say taxpayers should not be subsidizing people who chose to purchase marijuana.[17] Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions commented “[t]he federal government current spends roughly $750 billion each year on means-tested welfare programs across 80 different accounts[.]”[18] With that amount of money being spent on welfare programs, it is easy to see why this debate has garnered so much attention. Currently, this bill has been referred to the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, and Nutrition where it awaits further evaluation.[19]

Proponents of the bills H.R. 4142 and H.R. 4137 also focus on limiting government assistance to its intended purpose.[20] Specifically, proponents sate that marijuana does not qualify as a basic need, such as food, clothing, and housing.[21] Reducing wasteful government spending is important, but is further regulating government benefits the appropriate way to go about it? For example, within the first month of marijuana legalization in Colorado, government assistance was used “[a]t least 64 times . . . at businesses selling marijuana.”[22] In addition, a total of $5,475 in cash was withdrawn from ATM’s at establishments that sold marijuana.[23] However, that cash figure could not solely reflect all of marijuana purchases considering some of the establishments where the withdrawals took place also sold groceries.[24]

In comparison, opponents of the bills complain that regulating how government assistance should be used is just another way of shaming the poor.[25] The system is supposed to be set up that only those that deserve assistance actually receive the assistance. [26] In theory, it makes sense to question why further regulation is needed for people who have already qualified for assistance. Having additional regulations on which items government assistance can be spent on undermines the policy and forces those receiving assistance to re-evaluate what they consider necessity items.[27] Whether either of these bills will help alleviate wasteful spending of government benefits is yet to be determined, but until the system itself undergoes a reformation, there will continue to be a debate the regulation of government assistance.

[1] See Scott Miller, A Brief History of Marijuana, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of Hair (Heinemann, 2003), available at  http://www.newlinetheatre.com/potchapter.html.

[2] See Stephan Ohlemacher, Most Influential People Who’ve Used Marijuana 1-51, The Huffington Post, Nov. 16, 2014, available at  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/16/house-no-welfare-for-weed_n_5833148.html.

[3] See Office of National Control Drug Policy, Marijuana Resource Center: State Laws Related to Marijuana, The White House, available at  http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/state-laws-related-to-marijuana (last visited Nov. 28, 2014).

[4] Id.

[5] See National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws, available at   http://norml.org/news (last visited Nov. 28, 2014).

[6] See Jonah Bennett, After Senator’s Investigation, ‘No Welfare For Weed’ Bill Passes House, The Daily Caller, Sept. 17, 2014, available at  http://dailycaller.com/2014/09/17/after-senators-investigation-no-welfare-for-weed-bill-passes-house/.

[7] See Summary of H.R.4142 – No Welfare for Weed Act of 2014, Congress.gov, available at
https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/4142?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22HR+4142%22%5D%7D (last visited Nov. 28, 2014).

[8] See Text of H.R. 4142 – No Welfare for Weed Act of 2014, Congress.gov,available at
https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/4142/text (last visited Nov. 28, 2014).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] See Summary of H.R.4137 – Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act, Congress.gov, available at  https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/4137/all-actions-with-amendments.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] See Lis Power, Right-Wing Media’s Mythological “Welfare for Weed” Campaign Has Resulted in Actual GOP Legislation, Media Matters for America, Sept. 17, 2014, available at
http://mediamatters.org/blog/2014/09/17/right-wing-medias-mythological-welfare-for-weed/200794.

[15] See CBS/AP, “No welfare for weed” bill passes in the House, CBS News, Sept. 17, 2014, available at
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/no-welfare-for-weed-bill-passes-in-the-house/.

[16] See Marisol Bello, States Restrict Welfare Purchases, USA Today, July 9, 2012, available at
http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-07-08/welfare-purchase-restrictions/56100508/1.

[17] See CBS/AP, supra note 15.

[18] See Cliff Sims, Alabama Republicans: Preserve welfare for needs, not weed, Yellow Hammer, Sept. 17, 2014, available at
http://yellowhammernews.com/politics-2/alabama-republicans-preserve-welfare-needs-weed/.

[19] See Text of H.R. 4142, Congress.gov, supra note 7.

[20] Garrett Hawkins, No Welfare for Weed, Congressman Paul Gosar, March 4, 2014, available at http://gosar.house.gov/press-release/no-welfare-weed.

[21] Id.

[22] See Jillian Kay Melchior, Welfare Money Goes to Pot In Colorado, National Review Online, Feb. 24, 2014, available at  http://www.nationalreview.com/article/371814/welfare-money-goes-pot-colorado-jillian-kay-melchior.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] See Christopher D. Cook, The Shame and Pride of Joining Food Stamp Nation, Salon, Jan. 27, 2012, available athttp://www.salon.com/2012/01/27/joining_the_food_stamp_nation/.

[26] See Welfareinfo.org, available at http://www.welfareinfo.org/ (last visited Nov. 29, 2014).

[27] Id.