In the age of bank bailouts, global warming, Ebola, and new wars, there is a specter haunting America: welfare recipients purchasing legal pot. "Shockingly," blared Republican congressman Dave Reichert, who represents Washington's 8th District, "as a result of recent state laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado, and in my home state of Washington, we are seeing new abuses of these benefits."
He was speaking on the floor of the US House of Representatives on September 16. He did not cite any specific cases of the "abuses" he's so shocked by. But the Republican-controlled House went ahead and passed Reichert's "Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act" anyway, by a voice vote. (Which is not a recorded vote, meaning it's harder than usual to pin down which way the rest of the Washington State delegation voted on this thing; the office of Democratic Seattle congressman Jim McDermott did not say by press time whether he voted for the measure.)
There are at least a few reasons why this bill is a huge fucking waste of everyone's time.
First off, a grand total of four welfare recipients have withdrawn cash at ATMs at Washington's legal weed stores since they opened their doors in June, according to Washington State Department of Social and Health Services spokesperson Mindy Chambers. Four people, one each in the cities of Bellingham, Vancouver, Kelso, and Tacoma. That's 0.004 percent of the nearly 100,000 people in the state currently receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. Asked how big this problem is, Chambers responds flatly, "It's tiny."
Furthermore, she says, it's already illegal to purchase weed with welfare money in Washington State. "We wrote letters to the businesses saying that you need to block the use of EBT cards in your establishments," Chambers says. In response, businesses did. Then DSHS sent warning letters to the four people who misused their cards. If they repeatedly attempted to buy pot, they were told, their benefits could be terminated. "We have systems in place to detect it and to notify the businesses and the clients about the inappropriateness of this," Chambers says.
(In Colorado, in response to similar concerns, officials have implemented rules that allow them to deactivate EBT cards they believe are being misused. However, even the conservative National Review noted, in a July 22 article, that reports of people withdrawing welfare cash at ATMs near Colorado's legal pot shops didn't necessarily mean people were spending the money on weed. "It's impossible to determine how much of that welfare money actually was used to buy pot," the magazine wrote, noting some of the cash machines were in stores that offer groceries. In addition, the urban-legend-busting web site Snopes has declared widespread rumors of people buying pot brownies with food stamps in Colorado—rumors apparently launched by a satirical news site—to be "false.")
Reichert's bill is, of course, another in a long line of Republican attempts to demonize and shame welfare recipients as a lazy and shiftless "other" who must be policed until they grab hold of their magical free market bootstraps and hoist themselves into self-sufficiency. It's a tactic going back decades, all the way back to the patron saint of conservatives, Ronald Reagan, and his talk of "welfare queens" buying Cadillacs on the government dime.
The stereotype, with its ugly racist undertone, is no more true now than it was then. According to 2011 statistics from the US Bureau of Labor, families on welfare spend less across the board, devote a greater share of their budgets to basic needs, and spend less on things categorized as "entertainment" than families who are not receiving assistance.
Alison Holcomb, the ACLU lawyer who wrote Washington's marijuana law, says Reichert's bill also "compounds" the suffering of medical marijuana users.
"Its main problem," Holcomb says, "is the additional hurdle it poses for poor patients with terminal and debilitating medical conditions who are already denied access to cannabis by the federal bar on pharmacies dispensing it and Medicare covering its cost." In reality, Holcomb says, "the people of Washington would be better served if Congress spent more time developing rational marijuana laws and less time defending failed prohibitionist policies."
Reichert did not respond to a message seeking comment, but his Democratic opponent on the November ballot called his bill a bad idea. "He finds problems that don't exist and then he stands on them as though he's found a solution," says Jason Ritchie, Reichert's challenger. "It's ridiculous."
This article has been updated since its original publication.