Fox News seized on Colorado's legalization of recreational use and sale of marijuana to stoke fears -- while offering no evidence -- that low-income Americans could use food stamps to buy marijuana. In fact, food stamp recipients are barred from purchasing non-food items, cannot withdraw food stamps as cash, and fraud in the program is extremely rare.
After a Colorado law allowing the legal sale of marijuana went into effect in 2014, an urban myth spread that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) recipients could use electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to withdraw SNAP benefits as cash at ATMs located in marijuana dispensaries in order to buy marijuana. Colorado senate Republicans introduced a bill to ban the use of EBT cards at those ATMs, but the bill failed after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about restricting recipients' access to benefits in areas with few ATMs.
Despite lack of evidence and the failure of the bill, Fox News continued perpetuating the myth that SNAP recipients can use benefits to buy marijuana. The January 21 edition of Fox & Friends included on-screen text that read, “Food stamps for pot!” Another line of text claimed that the bill would “ban food stamps at pot shops.”
Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade introduced the segment by asking, “Can people collecting food stamps in Colorado add marijuana to their shopping lists?” and answering, “Right now the answer is yes.”
In fact, the answer to Kilmeade's question is no. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that administers SNAP, recipients are only allowed to use benefits to purchase approved food items and are barred from purchasing alcohol, tobacco, and non-food items. The USDA also makes clear that SNAP benefits can't be used to withdraw cash from ATMs (emphasis original):
SNAP benefits can never be withdrawn as cash. Many States allow clients to use a single EBT card to access SNAP as well as cash benefit programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In most States, cash benefits from other programs can be accessed through ATMs.
While other government assistance programs can be accessed via ATMs in Colorado, the Associated Press reported that, “There haven't been any reports of public EBT cards being used at marijuana dispensaries.”
A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report found that SNAP fraud is rare, only consisting of about $1 in every $100 of benefits paid. CBPP added that EBT cards actually help to reduce fraud because the cards monitor SNAP transactions for evidence of abuse and permanently disqualifies stores that traffic SNAP benefits. From CBPP (emphasis added):
USDA has cut “trafficking” -- the sale of SNAP benefits for cash, which violates federal law -- by three-quarters over the past 15 years. Only 1 percent, or $1 in every $100 of SNAP benefits, is trafficked. USDA has also permanently disqualified thousands of retail stores from the program for not following federal requirements. In fiscal year 2012, USDA's retailer fraud investigations resulted in 342 convictions and $57.7 million in recoveries. When cases of SNAP fraud are reported in the news, it is because the offenders have been caught, evidence that states and USDA are aggressively combating fraud.
In addition, SNAP now comes in the form of an electronic debit card -- like the ATM cards that most Americans carry in their wallets -- which recipients can use in the supermarket checkout line only to purchase food. This has been a key tool to reduce trafficking. Sophisticated computer programs monitor SNAP transactions for patterns that may suggest abuse. Federal and state law enforcement agencies are then alerted and investigate. Retailers or SNAP recipients who defraud SNAP by trading their benefit cards for money or misrepresenting their circumstances face tough criminal penalties.
Fox has routinely and shamelessly attempted to smear and mock low-income Americans, especially SNAP recipients, as lazy and parasitic, going so far as to actively lobby Congress to cut those benefits -- cuts that passed the Republican-led House.