Grow, Gift, Repair

EBT cards at dispensaries?

The state Department of Transitional Assistance reports those attempted THC transactions totaled $2,685 — and a leading critic of EBT abuses is applauding the state for staying ahead of the game in this case. But an advocate for public assistance says the illegal marijuana-purchase efforts are casting a useful if sometimes abused program in a bad light.

“Recreational marijuana establishments are prohibited by law from accepting electronic benefit transfer cards,” said DTA spokeswoman Brooke Karanovich.

All 22 legal pot shops in the state with ATMs and “point of sale” systems have been wired to help food stamp officials detect any food stamp cards being used to buy weed. The electronic surveillance was plugged in last November when the first pot shops opened in Leicester and Northampton.

All the pot shops opening up since then have also been programmed to catch EBT cards being used to buy edibles, bags of pot, prerolled joints or other legal marijuana products. It’s the latest attempt to cut down on welfare fraud that ballooned nationwide to $592.7 million two years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican who has long fought against food stamp abuse, applauded the weed surveillance system set up to catch would-be welfare tokers, but said there needs to be tougher penalties for EBT abusers.

“I’m glad the DTA is working hard to ensure taxpayer-funded benefits are not used at pot shops. There’s always going to be abuse of the system and we need to stay ahead of it,” O’Connell said. “I hope they are also pursuing penalties to catch those using an ATM in a pot shop.”

Under the current rules, food stamp recipients caught buying a “prohibited” product, like weed, must reimburse the state the first time they are caught, the DTA states on its website. A second violation gets the offender kicked off the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) for two months; a third instance calls for the offender to be booted “permanently.”

DTA was not immediately able to say what penalties were leveled against the people who tried to use EBT cards to buy pot.

DTA’s “program integrity team” continues to work with the state’s Cannabis Control Commission to tighten controls when it comes to SNAP cards being used at pot shops, Karanovich said.

In the past, EBT abuse has included cards being used for bail in police stations, in bars, tattoo parlors, beauty salons, liquor stores and numerous out-of-state locations. Notices to as many as 10% of all recipients in the past were returned as undeliverable.

In additonal to those locations, EBT cards are also banned at casinos, strip clubs and travel agencies. Recipients cannot use them to purchase lottery tickets, pornography, guns or ammunition, jewelry, televisions, stereos or video games. They also can’t be used to pay court fines or bail. Political contributions via SNAP cards are also prohibited.