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GOP Bill Would Block Low-Income People on Federal Assistance from Purchasing Marijuana

Congressional Republicans introduced a bill that would prohibit individuals receiving federal welfare from using that money to purchase cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) and cosponsored by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), would specifically prevent people registered with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program from legally buying marijuana.

Rice’s spokesperson said the lawmaker “believes it would be a misuse of taxpayer dollars to allow folks receiving welfare to use the funds for marijuana purchases.”

“Those taxpayer funds should instead be used by families who require assistance meeting actual needs,” the spokesperson added. “The cash benefits are already restricted at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs. This bill simply closes a loophole that will prevent people from exploiting the system as legal marijuana purchases continue to expand across the country.”

The brief text of the measure states that if passed into law it would “prohibit 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.”

The proposal wouldn’t, however, do anything to prevent welfare recipients from withdrawing money at an ATM and using that cash at a cannabis dispensary across the street. What’s more, with convenience and grocery stores in states where cannabis is legal considering selling prepackaged marijuana, welfare recipients would no longer be able to make purchases there, even for food. Others point out the irony in there being no federal restrictions on using welfare benefits to purchase semi-automatic weapons.

Marijuana reform advocates claim the measure, the latest legislative attempt to stop people from using welfare payments to purchase cannabis, is fundamentally about discriminating against those on low incomes and that it serves to perpetuate harmful stigmas surrounding marijuana use. The bill’s title – Preserving Welfare for Needs not Weed Act – does little to undermine the argument that the measure seeks to put marijuana in a negative light. The fact that it doesn’t distinguish between medical and recreational uses of cannabis is also problematic, according to Queen Adesuyi, the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs policy manager.

“Millions of Americans living with chronic, debilitating conditions rely on cannabis to manage their symptoms and significantly increase their quality of life. For millions of patients, cannabis IS a need,” Adesuyi said. “This bill is a disgraceful culmination of stigma against under-resourced people, and misguided stigma against cannabis, a medicinal plant.”

Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director, responded by ridiculing the bill and its sponsor.

“The absurdity of this effort highlights that Tom Rice is not a statesman but rather a petulant child attempting to take a serious issue and make a mockery of it,” he said. “Anyone who joins him on this bill only highlights that they are not willing to engage in serious policymaking decisions and should be voted out of office.”

His colleague, Erik Altieri, NORML’s executive director, described Rice’s bill as “a solution in search of a problem.”

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