HHS: Law Doesn’t Bar People From Using Welfare Benefits to Buy Legal Marijuana

Posted: Sep 10, 2014 10:30 AM

Sen. Jeff Sessions said on Tuesday that he will be introducing legislation to close a loophole that allows people using welfare benefits to buy marijuana.

Responding an inquiry Sessions made about the policy earlier this year, HHS Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell said that the federal government does not have the power to stop states from allowing people to do this. While the law does provide a list of places people cannot use their benefits, marijuana dispensaries are not among them.

The Washington Examiner reports

The law was updated in 2012, prior to Colorado’s decision in May 2013 to legalize the production and sale of marijuana. The law gives HHS the power to withhold funds to states that allow people to use welfare money at liquor stores, casinos, and “establishments in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment.”

Burwell added in the letter that “nothing in the the TANF statute or regulations precludes states from taking measures to prevent recipients from using their benefit cards at marijuana shops.”

States, Burwell added, can add language to prohibit certain expenditures and in Colorado, she added, lawmakers are examining whether to ban pot from the list of things that people can buy with welfare.

“The federal government current spends roughly $750 billion each year on means-tested welfare programs across 80 different accounts. This money is administered by a vast, sprawling bureaucracy with little oversight and no moral vision. Surely we can all agree that the guiding principle ought to be that benefits are reserved for those in real need,” Sessions said in a statement Tuesday.

“In recognition of this common-sense objective, Congress has already passed a law which states that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits may not be withdrawn from certain places like liquor stores. But I was surprised to learn that HHS says it ‘has no authority to prescribe policies and practices… to prohibit the use of TANF benefit cards at marijuana stores.’ I intend to introduce legislation to address this problem. Once the loophole is closed, I will also be following up with HHS to make sure they are taking the steps necessary to stop this dangerous misuse of taxpayer-funded benefits,” he added.