Right-Wing Media's Mythological “Welfare For Weed” Campaign Has Resulted in Actual GOP Legislation

Conservative media's lengthy campaign to demonize government programs by accusing low-income Americans of using benefits to buy marijuana has culminated in legislation being passed by Republicans in the House of Representatives this week.   

Two bills linking government assistance for impoverished families to the legal purchase of marijuana are making their way through the Republican-controlled House. The Preserving Welfare For Needs Not Weed Act, proposed by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and passed by the House yesterday, aims to prohibit the use of electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards containing cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in stores selling marijuana (At this time, only two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the sale of the drug for recreational use). A second bill, the No Welfare For Weed Act, introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), extends even further -- it aims to ban the purchase of marijuana with SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

These bills come on the heels of a concerted effort by Fox News and conservative blogs like National Review Online (NRO) to accuse low-income Americans of using government assistance to purchase recreational marijuana. One month after Colorado legalized the sale of pot, NRO alleged “welfare beneficiaries withdrew thousands of dollars in public-assistance cash from ATMs at weed shops” in the state, a report echoed by Fox & Friends co-host Eric Bolling, who asked, “Are food stamps now going to pot?”:

BOLLING: Forty-seven million people are on food stamps nationwide. In Colorado, more than 500,000 are getting food stamps every month. Meanwhile, 348 shops are set up in Colorado to sell pot in the state. And food stamp cards have reportedly been used at pot shops, ATMs, at least 64 times in the short time weed has been legal in Colorado. So are food stamps now going to pot?


In 64 specific times, people used an EBT card to take out cash, presumably to buy pot.

Conservative media's accusation that impoverished families use food stamps and government benefits to buy marijuana, one they've continued to push for months, was echoed by House Republicans justifying their current proposals.

Presenting his bill on September 16, Reichert declared, “We are seeing new abuses of these benefits. In these states, a person can walk into one of the newly opened pot shops and use their welfare benefit card to pay for pot ... This isn't an idle concern. Report examining welfare transactions in Colorado revealed over $5,000 in welfare benefits were accessed in stores selling marijuana in the first month such stores were open.”

The link between TANF benefits and pot purchases has yet to be established. In NRO's original report, the blog admitted it could not conclude that any TANF money has been used specifically for the purchase of marijuana, stating, “Some of these establishments sell groceries as well as pot, so there is no way to know exactly how much welfare money was spent on marijuana.” 

Notably, despite the House bill suggesting otherwise, food stamp 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 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. 

The House bills evidence the influence of conservative media's lengthy campaign to shame and mock low-income Americans for accepting government assistance.