Oregon kills medical marijuana deduction for food stamp applicants
July 11, 2012
Noelle Crombie, The OregonianOregon and two other states will no longer allow certain food stamp applicants to deduct medical marijuana expenses from their incomes after federal officials threatened the states with penalties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a nationwide memo to regional directors of the food stamp program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, after The Oregonian contacted the agency about the practice last week. The newspaper surveyed 17 states that permit marijuana for medicinal use and found three – Oregon, New Mexico and Maine – allowed certain applicants to deduct the cost of the drug from their income when applying for the benefit.
In determining whether a family is poor enough to receive food stamps, Oregon allows applicants to deduct medical expenses from their incomes. Since voters legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal use in 1998, the state has counted the cost associated with obtaining medical marijuana as a qualifying medical expense.
Only elderly or permanently disabled Oregonians who qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance could claim the deductions.
Although the change is expected to affect a small percentage of food stamp recipients, the government's move was a symbolic blow for medical marijuana advocates.
"It's a sad day when we have to see this kind of retreat based on what appears to be federal pressure and federal intimidation," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group. "It makes one wonder when the federal government is going to come around and realize this is indeed a public health issue and address the problem accordingly. It's a problem only in the sense that the federal government is creating the problem."
The Oregon Department of Human Services on Tuesday received the memo from the USDA ordering states to discontinue the deduction. The memo states that under federal law, marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use and cannot be prescribed for medicinal purposes."
"States that currently allow for the deduction of medical marijuana must cease this practice immediately and make any necessary corrections to their state policy manuals and instructions," wrote Lizbeth Silbermann, director of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service's program development division.
"States that are not in compliance may face penalties for any overissuance of SNAP benefits," she wrote.
Gene Evans, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the agency forwarded the memo to the Oregon Justice Department for review. The department advised the agency to drop the practice. The Department of Human Services on Thursday told agency staff that the state will stop allowing medical marijuana deductions on food stamp applications.
New Mexico and Maine officials also told The Oregonian on Thursday that they, too, have heard from federal authorities and will no longer allow the deductions.
In an email to The Oregonian Thursday, Erinn Kelley-Siel, the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, acknowledged that out-of-pocket medical expenses are a challenge for low-income elderly and disabled food stamp recipients.
"While we recognize that Oregon voters have declared marijuana to be medicine, this new guidance from the federal government sets clear direction on allowable medical expenses under federal law," she wrote.
She said officials will suspend approval of any new medical marijuana deductions on food stamp applications; correct the state policy manual to reflect the change; and provide new instructions for staff and food stamp recipients about medical marijuana deductions.
She said the agency also will identify all recipients who previously submitted medical marijuana deductions on their paperwork and "work with them to make corrections to their eligibility and benefits."
In Oregon, the number of people eligible for the deductions was small. About 33,000 food stamp recipients are elderly and qualified for social security disability insurance -- roughly 8 percent of the total food stamp caseload. It's not known how many of them are medical marijuana patients, but Evans said such cases were not common.