13 September 2014

Much of what we deal with in responding to reader mail here at snopes.com is cases in which people don’t read things carefully, or don’t understand what they’re reading, and instead scan an article and interpret it to mean something they’re already inclined to believe, even if the article says exactly the opposite. The issue of whether one can use food stamps to purchase marijuana is such a case.

Back at the beginning of 2014, when the states of Colorado and Washington did away with laws criminalizing marijuana use, it was inevitable that some of the Internet’s many fake news sites would decide to yank readers’ chains by claiming that people were using food stamps to buy pot, and sure enough, they did. A widely circulated spoof article from the fake news site National Report published on 3 January 2014 held that a Denver marijuana dispensary called Rite Greens would be accepting food stamps towards the purchase of food items (e.g., brownies, cookies) containing marijuana. That article was fiction, and it’s as false today as it was when it was originally published.

Food stamps are a federal program that subsidizes the purchase of food products by low-income individuals and families, so named because beneficiaries of the program used to receive an allotment of stamps that could be used in place of cash to purchase food items from qualifying retailers. Today the food stamp program is officially known as the

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and its benefits are distributed to recipients in the form of Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT): credits are applied to government-issued EBT cards that SNAP recipients can use like debit cards to make purchases from food vendors. However, SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy marijuana anywhere in the U.S., as the use of SNAP benefits is specifically restricted to the purchase of qualifying food products: SNAP benefits cannot be applied to the purchase of beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco, nor non-food items such as pet foods, household products and supplies, vitamins, and medicines.

However, we’ve encountered a significant problem with reader comprehension on this issue because many people conflate the terms “food stamps” and “EBT” to mean the same thing, but they don’t because Electronic Benefit Transfer cards are a method of benefit distribution used for a number of federal, state, and local government assistance programs other than food stamps (such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as TANF). Simply put, food stamps are a form of EBT, but not all EBTs are food stamps. Thus when news outlets run articles about customers supposedly using EBT cards at marijuana shops, we get mail like the following from our readers:


You need to update your Colorado Pot EBT “false”
 

Please update the truth about use of EBT cards for purchase of marijuana.


 

Let’s take a look at some of what readers are misunderstanding. One counter-example commonly cited by our readers is a 15 January 2014 Pueblo Chieftain article titled “Use of public assistance cards OK at pot shops”:


Saying some neighborhoods have more pot shops than banks, Colorado Democrats on Wednesday rejected a proposal to ban the use of public assistance cards to obtain cash at marijuana-shop ATMs.

The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted 3-2 along party lines against a GOP proposal to add marijuana shops to the list of places where recipients of public assistance can’t use their government-issued EBT cards to access cash.


 

What careful reading of this article reveals is that it isn’t about people directly charging pot purchases made at marijuana shops to their government-issued EBT cards; it’s about people using ATMs situated in marijuana shops to withdraw cash against their EBT cards, then using that cash to purchase pot. Those are two similar, but distinctly different, subjects. Moreover, since food stamp (i.e., SNAP) benefits distributed via EBT cards can’t be withdrawn in the form of cash (they can only be used as credit towards the purchase of SNAP-qualified foodstuffs), clearly this article is talking about forms of government assistance other than food stamps.

Likewise, news reports such as a 9 September 2014 CBS News article (“Federal Law Allows Marijuana Purchases with Welfare”) are often cited as counter-examples:


The federal government maintains the authority to curb funding to states that allow welfare recipients to use their EBT cards in liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs, but that power doesn’t extend to marijuana dispensaries, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell clarified recently.

Responding to a query about the policy by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Burwell wrote in a letter that current law makes no mention of marijuana shops as establishments where people are prohibited from using benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Right now it’s only an issue for the two states that have legalized pot, Colorado and Washington.


 

That article is closer to being on-point (it’s about people using government-issued EBT cards to buy marijuana), but it’s still specifically about the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, not food stamps. Those are two different programs.

There are a couple of issues at play here, one of which is assistance programs (other than SNAP “food stamps”) that allow recipients to use EBT cards to withdraw benefits in the form of cash from ATMs. A number of states have enacted laws that prevent the EBT cards from being used for cash withdrawals from ATMs located in particular types of businesses (such as liquor stores, gun shops, casinos, and adult entertainment venues) in order to cut down on the spending of public assistance funds at those establishments. Since (legal) marijuana shops were not a type of business that existed in the U.S. prior to 2014, state laws didn’t exclude those shops from the class of venues at which ATM usage with EBT cards was disallowed, and politicians in Colorado and Washington are now trying to pass legislation to close that loophole. (Even if such legislation passed, public benefit recipients would still be able to withdraw cash with their EBT cards at ATMs situated outside of marijuana shops or via “cash back” purchases at stores, then take that money to marijuana shops to purchase pot. Additional regulations would make it more inconvenient, but not impossible, to spend EBT funds on pot.)

Another issue is that federal law currently does not exclude marijuana shops from the types of establishments at which TANF benefits may be used. The federal government has the power to reduce TANF funding to states that allow welfare recipients to use their EBT cards in certain types of venues (e.g., liquor stores), but federal law in this area does not yet explicitly address marijuana retailers or dispensaries. Federal legislators are also working to close that “welfare-for-weed” loophole.

The bottom line is that it’s not possible to completely preclude public assistance recipients from using that assistance to obtain marijuana. Laws and regulations might prohibit the direct use of EBT cards to purchase pot and make indirect use of those benefits for that purpose more difficult, but people will always find a way to barter what they have for what they want. However, it’s still inaccurate to say that people “can use food stamps to buy marijuana” — you can’t walk into a marijuana dispensary and buy pot by charging your purchase to an EBT card loaded with SNAP benefits, nor can you use that card to withdraw cash (from anywhere) to spend for that purpose.