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Bans on food stamps for convicted drug users and using welfare debit cards at strip clubs moving in the House

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Felons convicted of drug possession won’t be able to get food stamps or emergency cash for poor families unless they successfully complete state-approved substance abuse treatment programs and recipients of the cash aid won’t be able to use debit cards at strip joints or gambling locales under two bills approved by a Florida House committee Tuesday morning.

Barring drug abusing convicted felons is already part of federal law restricting who can get food stamps. But the federal government allows states to opt out of the prohibition, which Florida did more than two decades ago.

Both measures are aimed at ensuring that the money going to needy families benefits children, proponents say.

But Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, objected that the bill was “mean-spirited.”

“This bill presumes all poor people have a problem and use dollars in an inappropriate ways, especially those who have been convicted of a drug crime,” said Pafford.

Making sure felons who were convicted of drug possession complete treatment is a good thing, argued Rep. Dennis Baxley, a former state director of the Christian Coalition said at the House Human Services Committee today before the 12-6 vote along party lines in favor of the measure (HB 813). A Senate committee is expected to vote on the measure tomorrow.

“It’s about government not being a codependent,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said, adding that 80 percent of crimes are related to drug abuse. “Anything we can do to help people identify and move away from that is a benefit.”

Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said the changes would bring Florida into line with federal law and mirror what many other states are now doing.

“I’m not sure why the state of Florida passed that law that allowed those individuals to receive food stamps. I guess that was just a different time,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t see any logical reason myself for why Florida has carved that out in today’s time.”

Those who are ineligible for the benefits because of their felony convictions could name someone else to receive the aid on behalf of the children in the family who would otherwise lose out on the food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But some critics say the requirement that felons complete state-approved drug treatment could be problematic because many of the approved facilities have wait lists and they cost money. Popular recovery programs Alocholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which are free, would not fulfill the requirements.

A separate, more controversial measure would restrict where those who receive TANF can use state-issued EBT cards. The move was prompted by a television report that found that some recipients of the cash aid – the poorest of the poor, as some Department of Children and Families officials call them – have used the cards at liquor stores, strip clubs and gambling joints. The measure (HB 1401) would prohibit their use at those locations and also stop poor families from using the cards out-of-state.

“Sometimes to do the right thing all people need is a little bit of encouragement,” Baxley said before the 13-4 vote. Rep. Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach split with fellow Democrats on the bill, saying he was troubled to learn the cards had been used at Internet cafés.

That provision could hurt abused women fleeing the state for their safety, objected Pafford, who failed to get the committee to strip the out-of-state provision.

Critics of the proposed policy say limiting where the cards can be used will not have much impact, in part because the cards can be used at ATMs where cash can be spent anywhere.

“It won’t have that big of an impact in terms of restricting individual usage,” Wilkins said. “I think we’ve got to deal with the fraud issue more and more. It’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of more and more fraud policies coming down the pike.”

Wilkins said his agency is trying to combat fraud in other ways, including taking steps to verify the identity of people applying for the benefits. Those applications are now done on-line, but Wilkins said he wants to add questions that would screen out imposters. If the questions aren’t answered correctly, applicants would then have to apply in person, Wilkins said.

Bath salts shake up: Chemistry class is over, Bondi says

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by Dara Kam

“Creative chemists” crafting new concoctions to sidestep state laws banning “bath salts” have unwittingly issued a challenge to Attorney General Pam Bondi, who’s on a crusade again to purge convenience stores of the dangerous drugs.

A little more than a year after Bondi issued an emergency order banning “bath salts” – a dangerous synthetic drug cocktail – kids are still overdosing on the drugs, often sold at convenience stores near high schools, Bondi, flanked by other law enforcement officials, said at a press conference this morning.

Bondi said she predicted the chemists would come up with new combinations to skirt Florida laws banning specific compounds when the legislature outlawed them last year. But she’s not giving up, she said.

“Guys, chemistry class is over and we’re going to enroll you in chemistry class in Florida prison because that’s where you belong,” Bondi said.

Two Panhandle Republicans – Sen. Greg Evers of Baker and Rep. Clay Ingram of Pensacola – have sponsored bills (SB 1502, HB 1175) that would expand the ban on the drugs, sometimes sold as incense under names like “Jazz” or “K2 Spice.” The House bill is headed to the floor this week and the Senate measure has one more committee stop.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested for selling the synthetic drugs since the law went into effect on July 1, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Assistant Secretary Jim Madden said.

Bondi called on parents to educate their kids about how harmful the substances are, which some drug users think are safer than traditional street drugs like cocaine.

But Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron – who said three youths in his region recently overdosed on the drugs – said consumers need to boycott stores that sell the drugs.

“When you patronize these stores, and you see these substances on the shelf, you question the store owner,” Cameron said. “The only reason they are selling it is because they’re making money.”

House committee gives initial OK to pill mill bill

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The House Health and Human Services Committee gave a preliminary nod to a measure backed by House Speaker Dean Cannon that would limit physicians’ ability to dispense drugs and scrap current laws regulating pain management clinics.

The measure (PCB HHSC 11-03) would also allow felons to own and operate “pill mills,” a prohibition lawmakers passed two years ago after it was reported that some of the clinics were owned by convicted drug dealers.

The committee is getting ready to pass a second measure (PCB HHSC 11-04) that would repeal the state’s yet-to-be implemented prescription drug database.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has insisted he wants to get the database up and running and is willing to spend the $500,000 a year to operate it although lawmakers barred any state money to fund the program.

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