JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri is relaxing its lifetime ban on providing food assistance to people convicted of felony drug offenses.
Legislation signed Friday by Gov. Jay Nixon will allow people with three or fewer drug felonies to receive aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so long as they meet certain conditions.
To qualify for food stamps, they would have to prove their sobriety through urine testing and must complete, enroll in or be determined not to need a substance treatment abuse program approved through the Department of Mental Health.
A 1996 federal welfare law banned people convicted of felony drug offenses from receiving food stamps or cash welfare payments. But it allowed states to opt out of the ban.
Missouri was one of about 10 states that still maintained a permanent ban on food and welfare payments for all people convicted of drug felonies.
During legislative hearings, people with prior drug convictions testified that the food-stamp ban has made it harder for people to climb out of poverty. Some also questioned its fairness, noting that the ban did not apply to convicted murders or sex offenders who are released from prison.
State Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, had been one of several lawmakers pushing to modify Missouri's ban.
"This is really important when these individuals are trying to re-establish themselves," Curls told colleagues when the legislation received a Senate committee hearing earlier this year. "Sometimes, food stamps help get folks over the edge."
The legislation also allows the Department of Social Services to establish a pilot program to encourage people to use their government food benefits to buy fresh products at farmers' markets.
The bill includes several provisions intended to catch potential misuse of food and welfare payments. Electronic benefit payments would be temporarily suspended pending a state investigation any time a recipient does not make at least one electronic benefit transaction in Missouri during a 90-day period.
That provision comes after a state audit last year questioned the out-of-state use of welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The audit found 366 cases in which recipients used a total of $461,000 of benefits exclusively outside of Missouri for at least three months.
The legislation adds food stamps to an existing ban on using cash welfare payments to buy alcohol, tobacco products and lottery tickets or at casinos and strip clubs.