AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine was one of a handful of states that allowed some food stamp applicants to deduct medical marijuana expenses from their income for the purpose of determining benefits, but last week that practice was stopped by order of federal officials.
“They told us it is not an allowable deduction and we have stopped allowing it,” said Dale Denno, director of the Office of Family Independence, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.
He said the deduction was limited to elderly or permanently disabled Mainers and not all of the people eligible for SNAP benefits. He said his agency does not know how many individuals are affected by the change but said he believed it was a small number.
Maine, New Mexico and Oregon have laws allowing the use of medical marijuana. Denno said Maine’s law requires a doctor to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
“Since the regulation talked about both prescription drugs and other medications approved by a licensed practitioner, it appeared to be encompassed in that broader definition,” he said. “They now clarify that a household may not use the SNAP medical deduction for the use of medical marijuana.”
Denno said the direction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds and administers the SNAP program, is clear to the three states that the deduction must end or the states face penalties.
“States that currently allow for the deduction of medical marijuana must cease this practice immediately,” wrote Lisbeth Silbermann of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
Denno said the records of all SNAP recipients possibly affected by the clarification are being reviewed and the state will adjust benefits to reflect the change.
“This will take a while as we have to review each record,” said Mike Frye, state SNAP program director. He said while there probably are not many individuals affected by the change, identifying them and recomputing their benefits will take time.
“Once again this shows how out of touch the government is with its own citizens,” said Paul McCarrier with the trade group Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. He said the Maine law was the result of a citizen ballot initiative, was passed by a wide margin and has strong public support.
McCarrier said the ruling affects groups including the elderly and the permanently disabled that are known to use medical marijuana to alleviate chronic pain. Those groups already are hurt by out-of-pocket costs for medicines, he said.
“These people need to continue to have access to the medicines they choose to use,” he said.
McCarrier said the action by USDA and the state shows how important it is for those who use medical marijuana to testify when the rulemaking hearing is held later this summer for the state medical marijuana law.
What likely will anger many of the individuals who have been using the deduction is the federal requirement for the state to recover “overpayments,” even though the state allowed the deduction.
“It just seems patently unfair of the USDA to tell the state to go after these funds,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “If you qualify for SNAP benefits, you are just barely getting by.”
Pingree serves on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and has contacted USDA to express her opposition to the action. She said an amendment disallowing the deduction had been included in the House version of the Farm Bill, but the USDA should have waited for final congressional action on the issue before sending the memo banning the deduction.
“I don’t think this is fair to these people that were benefiting from this, and I don’t think it is fair to the people of Maine that passed this law,” she said. “I supported the law and I support a federal medical marijuana law.”
The conference committee to write the final version of the Farm Bill has yet to complete its work.