WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill Tuesday night that could make it a little harder for people to use government welfare payments to buy marijuana in states where the drug is legal.
Supporters call it the “no welfare for weed” bill.
The bill would prevent people from using government-issued welfare debit cards to make purchases at stores that sell marijuana. It would also prohibit people from using the cards to withdraw cash from ATMs in those stores.
A 2012 federal law already prevents people from using welfare debit cards at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.
Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., is the main sponsor of the bill. He said it is a logical extension of existing law now that Washington state and Colorado have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
“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.”
The House passed the bill on a voice vote, which does not require lawmakers to cast a recorded vote.
The reach of the bill would be limited, however, because pot smokers could still use their benefit cards to get cash from an ATM at a different store or bank, and then use the money to buy marijuana.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said he supported the bill. But he complained that it “does nothing to address the tattered safety net.”
Why not prevent people from using benefit cards at massage parlors and Cadillac dealerships? Doggett said. “Just blame the poor for being poor.”
About 3.6 million families receive cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, according to the Health and Human Services Department. That includes about 45,000 in Colorado and about 99,000 in Washington state.
Payments are loaded on debit cards known as electronic benefit transfer cards. They can be used to get cash at ATMs or to make purchases at many stores.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., raised the issue of using the cards to buy marijuana in April, when he sent a letter to HHS asking whether the department could prevent transactions at stores that sell marijuana.
HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell responded in July that HHS has no authority to prevent the use of benefit cards at stores that sell marijuana.
Sessions has promised to introduce a Senate bill similar to the House legislation. But with Congress rushing to go home as early as this week to campaign for congressional elections in November, the bill is unlikely to reach President Barack Obama’s desk this year.
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