As the cannabis industry grows, companies are faced with more labor related compliance and regulatory issues, which require time and expertise. Rather than hire internal staff to manage human resources (HR) and compliance, many companies choose to outsource nearly 85% of HR functions. These functions include payroll administration, HR tasks and other employment liabilities, like insurance, to a third-party Managed Service Provider (MSP). This model frees up internal resources to grow and develop the company’s core business, while also offsetting risks associated with employment, taxes and insurance.
Nicholas Murer formed WECO in 2014 to provide human capital financial services to the legal cannabis industry, offering services like payroll management, workforce management, human resource implementation, accounting solutions, recruiting and staffing. The company has since expanded to providing consulting services, financial product representation, investor asset development, wholesale trading and advising emerging market development projects worldwide.
With markets across the country maturing at a rapid rate, change is a constant. Cannabis companies operating in new markets need to maintain compliance while focusing on their business plan, which can be a difficult task. We sat down with Nick Murer to learn more about compliance issues that cannabis businesses face, like workers comp, payroll taxes, insurance and how outsourcing some HR functions can help.
Q: What are some of the major labor compliance issues faced by employers in the cannabis industry?
Nicholas Murer: Like other industries, the cannabis industry is subject to labor related regulations like paid time off, harassment prevention training, workers compensation requirements, payroll taxes, pay transparency, unemployment insurance and reporting. Unless companies have an expert, or a team of experts, monitoring and managing compliance on both the employer and employee side, they may quickly find themselves in hot water with state regulatory agencies, or even with an employee for labor law violations.
Another issue continues to be access to banking and payment processing. Many cannabis companies continue to pay employees and vendors in cash, which creates not only problems in accurate accounting, but safety concerns for employees as well. There are banks and credit unions that will work with cannabis companies, but without a partner who has relationships with and access to a proven and trusted network of banks and processors, monthly account and transaction fees can be expensive and out of reach. With the SAFE Banking Act stalled once again in Congress, this will continue to be an issue.
Q: How can cannabis companies mitigate their risk by outsourcing HR functions?
Murer: By utilizing a Managed Service Provider (MSP), cannabis companies enter a labor contract model for payroll and HR administration. An MSP is a professional workforce management company that provides comprehensive employment services for businesses.Nick Murer and the WECO team will be at the CQC this October 16-18. Click here to learn more.
This model provides the client company with the best labor practices, risk mitigation and claims management with access to national workers compensation and unemployment insurance. The MSP is the employer of record, so is responsible for most aspects of the employee/employer relationship. The day-to-day management of the employee continues with the client company, but the company’s liability and risk are reduced. MSP compliance risk reducing services include:
Background screening and reporting
Labor related compliance management at state and local levels
Handbook and policy management and distribution to employees
A central location for employee onboarding, time and assignment tracking, payroll administration and reporting
Separation of labor cost for each location/company for 280E tax mitigation
All federal, state and local tax filings
Employee access to health insurance
Employee access to banking for payroll direct deposit
Outsourcing to an MSP provides cost savings to the company, including:
More efficient payroll processing and legal compliance
Utilizing WECO to manage the employer of record process allows client companies to look beyond traditional payroll to a full workforce management solution that ensures a smooth payroll and provides the tools that can support the growth and development of a workforce including compliant banking, human resources management and employee services.
About Nicholas Murer
Nicholas Murer formed WECO in 2014 to provide human capital financial services to the legal cannabis industry, offering services like payroll management, workforce management, human resource implementation, accounting solutions, recruiting and staffing. Nick Murer has more than twenty years of professional and technical sales experience working globally in the energy, engineering and scientific industries, including a substantial background in industrial technical sales, account development, marketing, human resources, acquisitions and project management. He studied accounting and business management at the University of Pittsburgh and organization development and human resource management from Colorado State University.
The New Jersey legislature recently approved legislation that would allow licensed cannabis businesses to deduct ordinary business expenses on their state tax return that they are prohibited from deducting on their federal tax return, and such legislation has been sent to Governor Phil Murphy to potentially sign into law. This relates to the universally dreaded (among those in the cannabis industry, at least) Section 280E prohibition. This legislation is important because it would change current law to allow legal cannabis businesses in New Jersey to operate on more of a level playing field with other businesses in the state.
Cannabis operators and applicants are penalized by their inability to deduct certain expenses on their state and federal tax returns. The cause for this frustration is twofold. First, under federal law, cannabis is considered a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 801 (CSA). Second, under IRS Tax Code Section 280E, cannabis businesses that are legal under state law are still considered drug traffickers for the purposes of federal tax law. While a related issue that is often considered along with Section 280E is whether or not it is sound public policy to continue to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, that is beyond the scope of this article.
It is important to understand the history and purpose behind Section 280E. The history is unusual in that Section 280E was enacted in 1982 as a reaction to a court case in which a convicted cocaine trafficker asserted his rights under federal tax law to deduct certain business expenses, including a portion of his rent, the cost of a scale and packaging expenses. The court agreed that the cocaine trafficker should be legally able to deduct his ordinary business expenses as part of his criminal enterprise. The federal government then created Section 280E to punish drug traffickers by removing the profit out of drug deals. Section 280E provides, generally, that no deduction or credit will be allowed in running any business that consists of trafficking any controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act).1
Fast forward several decades and New Jersey has legalized medical and adult-use commercial cannabis activities. Still, because cannabis remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, federal law prohibits legal cannabis companies from deducting ordinary business expenses and New Jersey has similarly applied the Section 280E prohibitions. New Jersey’s legislators understand the inequity in having legalized, State-compliant cannabis cultivation, processing and retail businesses, where those same businesses cannot take advantage of standard expense deductions applicable to other legal businesses.
If enacted, this New Jersey legislation would decouple New Jersey’s business tax provisions from the Section 280E rule barring deductions for cannabis businesses. Under the proposed New Jersey tax code revisions, a licensed cannabis business’s gross income would be determined without regard to Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code.2 The legislation was approved overwhelmingly in both chambers: by the New Jersey Senate in a vote of 32-3; and by the New Jersey assembly in a vote of 69-8. It would apply to tax years beginning on January 1 of the year following the date the Governor enacts the legislation.
Under Section 280E, a business may not deduct expenses unrelated to its costs of goods sold (COGS), which are, generally, the costs to a cannabis business of producing cannabis products and inventory, including transportation costs to purchase the wholesale cannabis. Virtually everything else is subject to the Section 280E prohibition and non-deductible. So, all other typical costs, such as wages and salary, overhead, advertising, insurance, travel expenses and depreciation do not reduce taxable income. These ordinary expenses are still necessary for the operation of all businesses (to varying degrees). If businesses cannot legally deduct such expenses on their tax returns, their tax liabilities will increase and they will have less money to invest in their facilities and equipment, pay higher salaries and expand their operations.
The impacts of Section 280E are dramatic. An example helps to illustrate this. Consider a hypothetical C Corp. with gross sales of $1 million, COGS of $600,000 and other expenses of $300,000. Such business has a gross profit of $400,000 and net income of $100,000. If the business is normally taxed as a C Corp. at the 21% Federal tax rate, it would pay $21,000, or 21% of $100,000 net income and also $9,000 in State taxes (applying 9% State tax rate on $100,000 net income), for a total tax liability of $30,000. However, that same business in the cannabis industry would pay $120,000 in combined Federal and State taxes, with 21% Federal tax on $400,000 gross profit plus 9% State tax on $400,000 gross profit. As this demonstrates, a cannabis business may be taxed on 100% of the expenses a non-cannabis business could write off. Instead of a 30% effective income tax rate, the cannabis business in this example would have a 120% effective income tax rate. Such business that would otherwise have a profit instead would have a deficit.
Section 280E places a significant tax burden on legal cannabis operators that does not exist for other businesses. While New Jersey’s legislators cannot change the Federal tax code, they are taking action to revise New Jersey’s tax code to level the playing field. Let’s hope the Governor signs into law the pending New Jersey legislation to decouple its tax law from Section 280E.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C.
1. The relevant text of Section 280E provides: No deduction or credit shall be allowed for any amount paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business (or the activities which comprise such trade or business) consists of trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any State in which such trade or business is conducted.
2. The full text of the legislation provides: In the case of a taxpayer that is a cannabis licensee, there shall be allowed as a deduction an amount equal to any expenditure that is eligible to be claimed as a federal income tax deduction but is disallowed because cannabis is a controlled substance under federal law, and income shall be determined without regard to section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. s.280E) for cannabis licensees.
A report issued three years ago by the Department of Treasury, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), states that the IRS will begin to increase its audit of cannabis businesses throughout the country. The report, released on March 30, 2020, states that the IRS believes that most cannabis businesses have not accurately applied IRC 280E and as a result cannabis businesses could potentially owe hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding taxes. This determination is based on an audit of tax filings of cannabis businesses in tax year 2016.
TIGTA conducted an audit of cannabis businesses in three different states, California, Colorado and Washington. Of the businesses audited, TIGTA determined, as a result of the incorrect application of IRC 280E, that 59% of those businesses required adjustments to their returns. These adjustments totaled over $48 million in unassessed taxes for 2016. The results of this audit caused the IRS to consider auditing cannabis businesses throughout the country where medical and/or adult use cannabis is sold. According to experts, cannabis (plant touching) businesses can expect an increase in tax returns to be audited now that the IRS has begun to increase their staffing resources and their ability to conduct most audits virtually.
Although the report calls for the IRS to develop guidance for the cannabis industry, the resources available are not very helpful nor does it provide the guidance that plant touching business owners need to make sure they are audit ready because audits have begun in Massachusetts, Michigan, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
As a plant touching business owner, you need to be prepared for a potential audit of your tax returns. To be prepared you should have the right tools to help you perform cannabis accounting. You will need to implement sound policies and procedures.
Preparation is Key
As a plant touching business owner, you should always be prepared for a potential audit whether by the IRS for IRC 280E compliance, or a financial state audit as a requirement by your investors. To prepare for an IRC 280E audit, you must first have an accounting and reporting system set up to perform accounting for your vertical – dispensary, cultivation or manufacturing business. This will include a chart of accounts for your business type because this is the foundation for your accounting system and help to track all transactions that are specific to your particular operation. It will simplify recordkeeping for recording revenue, inventory, cost of goods sold as well as direct and indirect labor costs. It will also help with maintaining your library of documentation that is tied to each transaction. The level of detail will enable you to perform accurate cost accounting as well as provide backup for how your accounting team arrived at their calculations. In addition to having a robust chart of accounts and a document library, you will also need to have written policies and procedures.
The 3 P’s – Policies, Procedures & Processes
The key to making sure you are always audit ready is to implement sound policies, procedures and processes. You want to make sure you have written accounting policies that provide guidance on how your business performs various accounting tasks. It should reflect requirements based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or could reference IRS requirements per IRC 280E and/or IRC 471-11. For example, you should have an accounting policy for how your organization values inventory which is important for plant touching businesses.
You should also have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that provide step by step instructions on how specific tasks are performed. This will make sure that everyone within your organization is performing the various tasks the same. Your SOPs should be for all key tasks within the organization, especially those tasks that affect how transactions are recorded in your accounting system. It ensures accuracy and reliability of your financial statements.
Organizations should go a step further and create end-to-end business processes that go a step beyond SOPs. End-to-end processes are created from sequential steps that will allow auditors to follow each step to identify key controls, assess risks as well as potential fraud within an organization. Although having detailed end-to-end processes for your business is not a requirement, they do provide an extra layer of proof of the accuracy of your financial statements because you will have identified your key controls, mitigated potential risks associated with misstatements in your financial statements, and identified risks associated with fraud.
Although no one knows when or if their business will be audited, being prepared is the key to a less stressful and more successful audit. Being able to show an auditor items they may request but also having organized, easy to reference documentation that provides a detailed look at your accounting and reporting operations shows that you are serious about your business and you want to operate compliantly.
Like other states now embracing adult use, Connecticut has enacted a strong social equity program, with mixed results so far. Also, perhaps more than any other state, Connecticut has committed to protecting its existing medical cannabis patients and has put in place various mechanisms to guard their access to cannabis.
Slow Roll-Out of Retail Cannabis Licenses
Like other recently-legal states, Connecticut’s rollout of its retail licenses has not been rapid. The state’s initial goal has been to issue twelve retail licenses by lottery, with six reserved for social equity applicants. Also, the eighteen already-operating medical licensees were given the option to upgrade to a hybrid medical-adult use license, a process separate from the lottery.
As of the end of February 2023, there appear to be only twelve current (approved to do business) retail licenses, with eleven of those twelve belonging to medical-adult use hybrids. The majority of the 39 retail licenses listed on the state website are still in the provisional phase, which allows them to “work toward securing a final license.”
Connecticut Social Equity
Connecticut has committed to a robust social equity program and provided an early application opportunity for social equity applicants ahead of non-social equity applicants. In addition, the Nutmeg State has reduced fees for adult-use licenses by 50% for Equity Joint Venture applications, which is where investors agree to partner with a social equity applicant. Further, the state has eliminated 43,754 low-level cannabis convictions.
Connecticut’s social equity requirements are less rigorous than those of neighboring New York and New Jersey, which may provide additional entry opportunities for both in-state and out-of-state entrepreneurs. Connecticut defines a social equity applicant as requiring that at least 65% of a business be owned by an individual with less than 300% of the state median household income in the past three tax years. Since the median household income was $79,855, that individual would need to have earned less than $239,565 annually.
Subversion of the Lottery Process
The lottery for the six initial social equity licenses was held in May 2022 followed by the lottery for the initial six general licenses, which took place in September 2022. Both were administered by a professor and department head at the UConn School of Pharmacy (the state law stipulated the lottery operator must be part “of the state system of higher education”).
15,605 applications were received for both lotteries. Unfortunately, many of the winning applicants flooded the lottery system with hundreds of applications, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. One example, SLAP ASH LLC, accounted for 850 of the 8,360 applications submitted to the social equity lottery, winning 2 provisional retail licenses. Another company, Jananii LLC, spent over $200,000 to submit 807 entries, receiving one provisional retail license. “There were individuals applying for licenses who submitted 50 applications or more to enter the lottery,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “That wasn’t our intent.” Rojas and others are looking at other options for the next lottery to try and combat the problem.
Protecting Medical Cannabis Patients
Perhaps what makes Connecticut’s adult use cannabis program most unique is its outsized commitment to protecting medical patients’ continued access to cannabis. Concerned that adult use sales wouldn’t leave enough supply for patients, the state mandated a cap of ¼ ounce of cannabis for all adult use purchases. Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz commented that this action emphasized the importance of “not losing sight of a very robust medical program.”
With the recent strong sales of adult use cannabis, however, patients have expressed concern about access, and now the Nutmeg State is considering further action. A bill is being considered in the state legislature which would create a state cannabis ombudsman. This individual would act as a liaison between patients and the state and would, in effect, be there to put pressure on the four licensed growers. These cultivators are required to submit a medical cannabis preservation plan to “ensure against supply shortages of medical marijuana products” and are in many ways responsible for continued patient access to cannabis.
Connecticut lottery winners’ license fees will vary from $1,000 for a micro, to $25,000 for a retail, to $75,000 for a cultivator, subject to a 50% reduction if the applicant is deemed social equity. However, once the field is open to regular applicants, the fees will become sizeable.
Retail license fees will be $1 million and cultivation license fees will be $3 million, and even with a 50% reduction for an Equity Joint Venture application, the investment will be significant. The $1 million fee also applies to any existing medical dispensary that wishes to convert to a hybrid license without going through the lottery process. The four existing cultivation companies that wish to service the adult use market and avoid a lottery process will have to pay the $3 million as well.
Connecticut cannabis-businesses are obligated to pay a sales tax of 6.35%, a gross receipts tax of 3% and a privilege tax of $0.00625-$0.0275 per mg of THC, depending on the item. Other than New York, Connecticut is the only state to have a tax based on the potency of the cannabis product.
Federal Tax Subject to Section 280E
On the federal level, cannabis businesses are subject to Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which disallows deductions and credits for expenditures connected with trafficking in controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, schedule 1 or 2. As cannabis is a schedule 1 drug, cannabis companies are only permitted to reduce their sales by cost of goods sold when determining their taxable income. By example, a cannabis dispensary would only be allowed to deduct the cost of the product purchased and the cost to transport the product to the dispensary, while disallowing such significant expenses as rent and payroll. All cannabis businesses must forgo expense deductions related to selling, general and administrative expenses, as they are disallowed under the tax code.
While some states like California have not conformed to 280E and allow their cannabis businesses the same deductions as other businesses, Connecticut is not one of those states. Personal income tax starts with Federal Adjusted Gross Income while corporate income tax starts with Federal taxable income as reported on line 28. There are no provisions that say Section 280E does not apply. This will mean a significantly heavier state tax burden for cannabis businesses.
Labor and Employment Issues
Cannabis is expected to fuel significant employment growth in Connecticut, and experts project more than 11,000 cannabis jobs will be added once the market reaches full capacity. These jobs are expected to include full time and temporary positions in all cannabis verticals: cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, retail, marketing, testing, finance, accounting, legal, compliance and C-suite.
As part of its social equity program, the state has made it clear it would like to see cannabis businesses employ individuals from those communities that have been disadvantaged by the war on cannabis. Connecticut has also made it a requirement that every approved licensee enter into a “labor peace agreement” with a labor union, and that such an agreement shall be an “ongoing material condition of licensure.”
The state is focused on maintaining quality control on all aspects of its adult use cannabis businesses, including the people involved. Licenses are needed for all cannabis employees along with a special license for key employees in managerial positions. Additionally, financiers must be licensed, with a Backer license required for individuals with direct or indirect financial interests in a cannabis establishment totaling 5% or more.
Connecticut cannabis employees must be pre-trained through the state’s Social Equity Council. The state also requires that each license recipient have a workforce development plan approved by the Council “to reinvest or provide employment and training opportunities for individuals in disproportionately impacted areas.”
No adult cannabis state has come close to having a smooth opening for it adult use sales program, and Connecticut is no exception. With well-funded groups gaming the license lotteries and medical patients concerned about their continued access to cannabis, the Nutmeg State has its work cut out for it. But with its strong commitment to social equity and its outsized commitment to protecting its medical cannabis patients, Connecticut can serve as a role model for compassionate cannabis capitalism. 2023 will reveal how the state rises to its challenges and matures its cannabis marketplace.
By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright No Comments
Click here to read Part One where we examined the state of the market, licensing, approvals and sales. Part Two delves into all things taxes.
A “Raft” of Taxes
Like New York, New Jersey cannabis companies will be dealing with a raft of taxes:
Federal Section 280E: Will It Apply in New Jersey? Well … Sometimes
Section 280E disallows deductions on federal returns for expenditures connected with the illegal sale of drugs, requiring retail cannabis businesses to add back such significant expenses as rent and wages for sales staff.
Unlike New York, New Jersey’s recent cannabis legislation did not state that cannabis businesses were exempt from 280E. However, the state’s individual tax laws do not conform to the internal revenue code, and accountants are inferring that 280E won’t apply to sole proprietorships. Conversely, the state’s corporations must start their tax calculations using Federal taxable income, meaning 280E would apply.
Retail sales of adult use cannabis are subject to a 7% sales tax. Beginning July 1, 2022, medical cannabis sales are exempt from sales tax.
Purchases by cultivators of farming equipment and related property, such as plants, fertilizer and drip irrigation, are exempt from sales tax. Purchases by all cannabis businesses of materials used to contain, protect, wrap and deliver adult use cannabis are exempt from sales tax.
The CRC has been empowered to collect a “Social Equity Excise Fee”, to be adjusted annually. The fee is currently $1.10 per ounce, but the CRC is able, but not mandated, to amend the fees to between $10 and $60 an ounce after nine months of adult use sales. At least 70 percent of all cannabis tax revenue is earmarked for investing into impact zones.
The fee is imposed on any sale or transfer of cannabis from a cultivator (or alternative treatment center that also cultivates) to any other cannabis business. The fee is not imposed on transfers from one cultivator to another, or from a cultivator to an alternative treatment center. The facility that purchases the cannabis is responsible for collecting the fee and remitting it to the NJ Division of Taxation.
Local Cannabis Transfer and User Taxes
Each municipality is authorized to impose a Local Cannabis Transfer Tax on sales from one cannabis establishment to another (including from one cultivator to another), and on the sale of cannabis to retail consumers. The allowed rate is capped at 2% of receipts, with the exception of cannabis wholesaler sales, which are capped at 1%.
Atlantic City, which considers itself friendly toward cannabis, passed an ordinance in September 2021 authorizing the collection of a 2% tax on retail adult use cannabis sales and a 1% tax on wholesale sales. Many cities with alternative treatment centers already have a 2% tax on medical cannabis. It is assumed they’ll be enacting the 2% transfer tax on adult use sales if approved to operate.
Other Unique Points About New Jersey Cannabis
Adult use sales are limited: adults may possess up to one ounce total of cannabis products and can only purchase one ounce at a time.
New Jersey is the only state that has legalized cannabis, but kept it illegal for a cannabis consumer to grow their own weed. Growing even one cannabis plant can land the offender in prison for up to five years and incur a $25,000 fine.
About 400 municipalities have opted not to have retail cannabis shops; 98 have said yes. The new law has caused battles between mayors and their city councils, including the city of Paramus. 60% of Paramus residents voted in favor of adult use sales, and the mayor has stressed the benefit of the 2% transfer tax. Paramus city council unanimously rejected adult use cannabis, however. Some council members are against any sales, while others want to wait and see how other towns fare. Says Council Member Maria Elena Bellinger, “Ultimately … I feel that getting more data will only help us come to the right solution.”
Time Will Tell
New Jersey believes its careful approach will create the best adult use cannabis environment for its citizens. Only time will tell if the Garden State ends up avoiding some or all of the problems faced by states like California and New York.
By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright No Comments
Although Rhode Island is the USA’s smallest state, it has traditionally taken an out-sized dislike for cannabis and its users. It first banned cannabis in 1918 and, up until recently, had some of the strictest mandatory minimum sentences for large-scale possession, sentencing those with more than 5 kg (11 lbs) to 20 years’ imprisonment and fines of between $25,000 and $100,000.
Rhode Island’s Change of Heart
These days, however, the Ocean State has turned over a new leaf. It legalized medical cannabis in 2006, and on May 25, 2022, legalized adult use sales as well. Starting in December 2022, Rhode Island residents could purchase cannabis from five of the six medical cannabis dispensaries across the state which have also been approved to sell to adults.
Over the course of 2023, the state is expected to issue licenses for an additional 28 dispensaries, including a portion reserved for social equity applicants and worker-owned cooperatives. At the same time, 33 cities and towns across Rhode Island voted to determine whether cannabis businesses would be allowed in their jurisdiction. 25 of these municipalities ended up approving these measures.
Like many retail-legal states, Rhode Island has enacted social equity support for cannabis licensees. The state is divided into six retail license zones, and within each zone, one retail license will be reserved for a social equity applicant and one for a worker-owned cooperative. In addition, the state’s cannabis legislation provides for a $1 million fund to help support the social equity license recipients. Funded by all fees collected from adult-use cannabis businesses, this assistance fund will provide grants, promote job training and workforce development, and administer programming for restorative justice. The legislation also establishes a process whereby individuals may have their misdemeanor or felony convictions for cannabis possession expunged.
How Tax-Friendly Toward Cannabis is Rhode Island?
The Ocean State still has a way to go to be considered a truly cannabis-friendly state. For one thing, the state is forcing both individuals and corporations to conform to Internal Revenue Code section 280E which disallows deductions and credits for expenditures connected with trafficking in controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, schedule 1 or 2. This means cannabis companies will only be permitted to reduce their sales by cost of goods sold when determining their taxable income on their state tax returns unless they decide to take more aggressive tax positions. For example, with a conservative IRC 280E tax position, a cannabis dispensary would only be allowed to deduct the cost of the product purchased and the cost to transport the product to the dispensary, while disallowing such significant expenses as rent and payroll. All cannabis businesses must forgo expense deductions related to selling, general and administrative expenses, as they are disallowed under the tax code under this traditional method. Rhode Island has also disallowed cannabis businesses from taking an R&D tax credit as a result of conformity with federal tax law.
In addition, Rhode Island is requiring retailers to collect 10% state cannabis excise tax plus 3% local cannabis excise tax from its customers, along with the standard 7% sales tax. Good news: sales tax is not calculated on the excise tax collected (unlike California, which does impose tax-on-tax). Medical sales are subject to sales tax but not to excise tax, and excise tax is not charged on cannabis accessories. Excise tax, like sales tax, must be remitted to the state by the dispensary on or before the 20th of the following month.
Rhode Island has taken a big step forward from its anti-cannabis past by legalizing adult use sales and by supporting equity applicants as well as the expungement of past criminal convictions for many of those victimized by the war on cannabis. While Rhode Island’s excise taxes are not the worst we’ve seen, the state’s support of 280E will make it a lot harder for cannabis businesses to thrive.
As the former CEO of Partner Colorado Credit Union (PCCU), Sundie Seefried has been in the credit union space for 39 years. Established in 2015, Safe Harbor Financial is now a leading provider for banking and financial services in the cannabis industry.
Seefried founded Safe Harbor as a cannabis banking program for PCCU, and since then it has withstood scrutiny of 16 separate federal and state exams. Entering its ninth year as a cannabis banking program, they have almost 600 accounts in 20 states and have processed over $14 billion in transactions for the cannabis market. In September, Safe Harbor began trading on Nasdaq under the symbol SHFS. The company has also announced a definitive agreement to acquire Abaca, an industry-leading cannabis financial technology platform.
Seefried has seen it all in the cannabis banking world. We wanted to get her thoughts on some current events, the future of cannabis banking and lending, and what the next few years might hold in store for an industry ready to grow.
Cannabis Industry Journal:Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background and how did you find yourself in the cannabis industry? How did you get to become president and CEO of SHF?
Sundie Seefried: I’ve been in banking in the credit union space since 1983. I became CEO of Partner Colorado Credit Union in 2001 and stayed there for 21 years. Everything I do, I have a very conservative nature just from being in the banking world and doing things methodically and building good foundations that endure long term. In 2014 when FinCen issued guidance, I was supposed to retire, and I had dinner with some old friends that were attorneys who couldn’t get bank accounts for their clients in the cannabis industry. They asked me to help and I looked into it for them. I assumed the regulator would shut me down but he didn’t; he actually encouraged me to move forward and look further into things. As I educated the board, we saw just how unsafe Colorado was and the serious need for the community to figure things out with respect to banking and cannabis. Coming from that credit union perspective, I said I think we can do this, let’s try and I’ll go through the third parties necessary. And that’s how we got into this, just looking to try and help solve Colorado’s problems and get banking access for cannabis companies.
CIJ: Tell me about your company’s mission. What is your financing strategy in cannabis and of the companies you do business with, what do you look for most?
Seefried: Our mission remains the same, and that is to normalize banking in the cannabis industry as much as possible. Because the black market still exists, the issue becomes sorting the legal entities out from the illicit actors in the industry. We know that the illicit market is trying to hide amongst the legal environment, which really makes things difficult for upstanding cannabis businesses. We can normalize banking by making sure we help legitimize the compliant entities and sort out the bad actors. We really only want to work with legitimate players with licenses, who are fulfilling expectations on the regulatory level and have no problems with compliance. We have been able to do that on the depository side.
We have always been a low-cost provider and our clients count on that. As we move into the lending part of the industry, we’re looking to do the same thing. There are lenders who charge one-to-three percent per month, 18 to 36 percent per year. We, on the other hand, are targeting more of an eight to thirteen percent annual rate. More of a conservative approach. Real debt underwriting. No extremely high interest rates. We look for the collateral, we look for well-organized businesses and solid documentation. Those are the businesses we are trying to bring into the fold and offer them normal loans. Cannabis will always have a premium on it simply because it is illegal at the federal level and there are additional hoops we have to jump through. Because of the potential forfeiture and seizure, if there are bad actors, etc., it really behooves any clients coming to us to also place their depositary services with us so we can prove their legitimacy and provide loans to them.
CIJ: Let’s talk about the Canopy Growth news. They announced they are pulling the trigger on acquiring Wana Brands, Acreage Holdings and Jetty Extracts, under the Canopy USA holding company and ahead of federal legalization. On the surface, it looks like they are bypassing a lot of the hurdles American cannabis companies currently face with financial red tape. As a foreign company trading on the NASDAQ dealing with a schedule 1 substance, do you expect Canopy to have a significant, some would say unfair, competitive advantage with their early entry? Or is this perhaps more of a rising tide lifting all boats scenario? What effect will this have on the current market landscape?
Seefried: I find it a very interesting move on their part. Certainly, they have a big advantage in comparison to other companies. The consolidation in the industry is moving so quickly. Other players will keep up with this just as fast as Canopy is moving in. That’s my opinion in terms of what I see in the consolidation area of the market. I think what it really hurts is small businesses. My heart goes out to them. So many of them worked so many years to build excellent small companies with boutique shops, and this whole move will really change that part of the industry.
I see a lot of these small players, non-vertically integrated companies, being impacted in a negative way due to such mass consolidation and the entry of foreign businesses. We need to get more competitive on a global level in order for our companies to grow and thrive. This happened back in 2018, when so many companies started doing those reverse takeovers onto the Canadian Securities Exchange and suddenly, they were putting tens of millions of dollars into the U.S. market. People didn’t see that as a competitive disadvantage for American companies, but now this move by Canopy may really show that we have to look at things more globally.
CIJ: Biden’s announcement regarding the scheduling review for cannabis has a lot of industry folks very hopeful that federal legalization is closer to a reality than before. Do you share their optimism?
Seefried: Closer than before, yes. But how close? I am not convinced it will happen quickly. If they are really going to consider rescheduling or descheduling, everything happens in Washington very incrementally. Eight years and seven attempts at the SAFE Banking legislation and still no movement on that front. Tomorrow, we’re going straight to legalization? I have a hard time swallowing that one. I just don’t see that big of a jump all at once. I think it is interesting coming just before the midterms and votes are really needed now more than ever.
What Biden did was a great start. Especially for those people in prison for possession. The interesting part of it is, we are very serious about people who have used it, but the people who have sold it and are in prison might be in the same situation. Given how the laws worked for so long, just based on the amount of cannabis you had could get you automatically labeled as a dealer, which isn’t the case for a lot of incarcerated folks.
The fact is, the social equity and justice issue, who do you free or who do you not free from prison, is a very difficult issue to get through. I think it is a great step forward and it will help some people who were treated unjustly, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I believe we’ll start seeing pressure from the global market on the United States to move things along a little faster in our own country.”As far as rescheduling, if they go from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug, that will do no good, but it certainly is a bone to throw to the industry if you want to look like you are making some progress. Schedule II is still subject to 280E tax code so it will only do so much. If they want to make things more equitable and actually level the playing field, they have to do something about the 280E issue hindering every cannabis business in the country.
As far as full legalization, I am not optimistic because of all the players that need to be involved. Full legalization will require a change to the IRS tax code 280E as well as other tax issues. I think there are too many players: The DOJ, FinCen, the DEA, the FDA, the IRS. All of these agencies will have to agree on full legalization and moving forward in unison. The DEA is trying to fight illicit actors and illicit drugs. FinCen is trying to follow the money to find illicit actors. As long as there is an illicit market it will make their job tough, and on top of all of that, we have politics in play. That is just my take on legalization. It is going to be a much more complex problem than just legalizing the plant and moving on. Rescheduling seems like lower hanging fruit, but they will have to move it higher than a Schedule II.
CIJ: With the midterm elections here, there are a number of legalization measures in a handful of states, along with political control of Congress on the ballot. How do you think a Republican or Democrat controlled Congress will affect cannabis legalization progress?
Seefried: I just finished doing some lobbying in September in DC and spoke to some Senator offices in person, and I heard a lot of interesting topics being discussed. One of the things that keeps popping up is that social equity and justice is a huge issue. If we can’t solve this injustice in our system that has been going on for decades and decades, maybe they’ll hold banking legislation hostage. You can’t correct 50-60 years with one piece of legislation. Everything has to be incremental, unfortunately, so there will be some give and take there. I think that was a primary focus, especially with the Democrats and I do think it is a worthy cause.
On the Republican side, economically improving our competitive advantage as a country. They are starting to see the jobs being created and the tax revenue coming in and the growth of the industry. They will have to make that decision at some point in time whether they are going to leave the American cannabis industry behind or allow them to compete on a global level. I really think everything will move slowly and continue as it has happened in the past.
I believe we’ll start seeing pressure from the global market on the United States to move things along a little faster in our own country.
CIJ: As we inch closer to 2023, what do you expect the next year to offer for the cannabis financing market?
Seefried: I would say, with or without legislation, they’re finding greater access to banking. And the reason they are getting better access to banking is because none of us have been prosecuted for simply engaging in cannabis banking. I think we have set a precedent over the past eight years, not only us but other service providers in the industry and that we are not being prosecuted.
I see more financial institutions entering the market slowly. The second reason access to capital and banking will increase is because every financial institution in the country wants that lending relationship. In order to get there, they want to start with the depository relationship, and they don’t want smaller players presently doing it and getting all of those relationships before they enter the market. I think the competitive nature of the financial industry to land that lending relationship is going to force them into the game sooner than later.
The cannabis industry operates in a legal gray area between federal restrictions and state legalization in a constantly changing regulatory environment. Maintaining payroll and HR compliance is a burden cannabis companies face that grows exponentially with geographic expansion of the workforce.
Würk allows cannabis companies to manage payroll, human resources, timekeeping, scheduling and tax compliance, minimizing compliance risks in the ever-changing cannabis regulatory environment. The company uses its expertise and trusted partnerships to provide guidance on 280E tax law, accounting and banking. Its platform is designed to scale nationally with the growth of the industry while incorporating the local laws and regulations unique to individual states. Their clients include Cresco Labs, Canndescent and NUG.
We caught up with Scott Kenyon to ask about Würk’s approach to human capital management, challenges facing cannabis businesses and industry trends. Scott sat on the Board of Würk before becoming its CEO and chairman. Prior to Würk, Scott held leadership roles at Dell and Phunware.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Scott Kenyon: My wife and I were early investors in a few companies in Colorado and Nevada. From early on (this was back in 2015) we learned the hard way of cannabis and how difficult it is to run these businesses, especially in those early days. We’ve progressed a ton over the years, but it’s still very difficult to run cannabis businesses.
I joined Würk about five years ago as a board member. I came on as CEO at the beginning of 2021 after our founder and previous CEO Keegan Peterson, who was an early trailblazer in the industry, passed away. So, I’ve been CEO at Würk for about 18 months.
Green: Tell me about Würk and the main problems you’re trying to solve.
Kenyon: Early on we were focused on establishing getting out of the cash business for these cannabis companies. Allowing them to pay payroll, taxes and be tax compliant electronically was a huge early advantage for us as a company. Now, fast forward seven years later and a lot of different banks (credit unions) are in the industry and that is allowing people to move money. So, that’s not as big of an advantage for us anymore, but early on that was huge.
Our advantage now is the scars on our back, for lack of a better phrase, from what we’ve gone through over the last seven years. We anticipate. We prevent. And most importantly we’ve seen all those problems for our customers. Last year, a big thing of mine was being “Smokey the Bear.” We want everybody to be Smokey the Bear: prevent fires and prevent issues for our customers. When I came in, we were the world’s best firefighters. I didn’t want that title. I wanted to prevent issues for our customers. That takes you from being a vendor to a partner.
If you look at it, on our platform we have 80% of the enterprise cannabis market, about 60% of the mid-market and then low single digits in the small business space. We have that market share because we provide invaluable experience and guidance to our customers. The biggest MSOs have different challenges from a “Joseph and Scott” dispensary, or a “Mary and Jane” grow facility. We’re able to adapt to all those different segments.
At the core of our product, we offer payroll services and what we call HCM – human capital management. That’s everything from scheduling, applicant tracking systems processing and paying your payroll taxes. So, we have the full gamut of product offerings that any type of HCM or HRIS software system does, whether you’re outside of cannabis or inside of cannabis, we’re offering the same thing.
Green: How does Würk differ from say a Professional Employer Organization (PEO)?
Kenyon: We aren’t a PEO. We don’t manage employees. At a high-level, a PEO is basically managing HR for these companies. Our platform enables HR professionals to go out there and do that. PEOs are more popular down in the small business space, because people are not at the scale to hire an HR team. We’re similar in that we’re processing payroll and have all the software that these companies need, but we’re different in that we’re not running their HR for them.
Green: How do you work benefits into the mix?
Kenyon: We leave it to the client, and we integrate their benefits provider into our platform so it’s an easy one-stop shop. We have single sign-on for a lot of our integrations. For the HR organizations, we want them to log into our platform and everything they need will be there.
Green: How is SAFE banking going to affect the HR industry in cannabis?
Kenyon: It’s going to be great for the industry, obviously. For HR specifically, it’s going to bring in more providers of payroll and more competitors for us for sure. But also it’s going to bring in more providers of services that can come in and offer that right now because of the federal illegalization.
Green: How does 280E affect your business and your customers?
Kenyon: We don’t guide people around 280E because that’s a tax specific matter. We refer them to their tax experts. We process payroll tax, which is different than what 280E affects. I think 280E was a big challenge, it’s still a big challenge, but that’s mostly because people didn’t really understand it. I think 280E was a problem five to seven years ago. In the last two years most companies are very familiar with it. That doesn’t mean 280E is the right thing. I think 280E is an awful thing. And while I think I hope SAFE banking is the first thing to fall legislatively, I think 280E has a good chance of getting across first.
On any given day my opinion on which will go first changes. I just want something to get across the line.
Green: What are some unemployment and payroll challenges your customers face?
Kenyon: We really watch unemployment changes and changes in job descriptions or job codes. For example, if an unemployment rate changed, and that unemployed person moved to a different place, which happened a lot during COVID, that company needed to report that and they needed to collect the appropriate charges or taxes there.
Green: What geographies are you in right now?
Kenyon: As of January 1, we had people on our platform in 46 states and just under 600 different jurisdictions. So, even though cannabis isn’t legal in all those states, big companies have employees across the United States.
Green: How do you help your users manage compliance across multiple jurisdictions? That must be a complex undertaking.
Kenyon: Our platform automatically plugs into the states that have electronic notifications around laws, which most states do. In our tax department, we have certain group members that are experts, let’s say, in the west coast. So, we assign people to certain regions to ensure that they have the best knowledge.
From our support piece, where a lot of our customers come in, somebody might say, “Hey, I have a unique question for Utah” and we’ll say we have a person that is specialized in Utah, but we don’t force them there, we just give them the option. But in our tax queue, we actually direct the customer like, “Hey, here’s a Massachusetts Question, so that goes to a particular person because they are our Massachusetts expert.”
Green: How do you deal with timekeeping issues like overtime?
Kenyon: Well, our system does that automatically. Let’s say they’re working overtime in a state that’s difficult to keep time for like California. In the state of California, if they’re working overtime on a Saturday or Sunday or a holiday, that’s a whole different calculation than working longer on a Thursday night. So, our platform is made to automatically calculate that for our customers. There’s no manual adjustments or coaching happening there. We just follow the state law based on where the employees are.
Green: Are you seeing any unionization of employees within the cannabis industry?
Kenyon: There’s unionization in many of our states, I don’t know the exact number, but California being the biggest, there’s a lot of union representation. Illinois is probably the second biggest union state on our platform. I’m assuming New York will be once it becomes adult use.
Green: How does Würk approach cybersecurity?
“Cannabis customers don’t want to buy on the illicit market. They want to buy from a trusted source. It just takes time to make that happen.”Kenyon: Well, we approach it very seriously and I recommend everybody take cybersecurity seriously. We test our internal systems regularly. We test our employees through phishing scams. And we’re always just trying to educate our team on the risk that we have.
I can’t share specifically the prevention steps that we’re taking, but I can tell you we partner with some of the biggest experts and make sure that we’re following everything that they’re recommending. More importantly, we’re testing for human failures, because where most failures happen is with people.
Green: What trends are you following in the industry right now?
Kenyon: Any type of activity in Congress is going to be huge for this industry. So that’s something I always keep abreast of. The next thing that comes down the line which is tied to that is interstate commerce: How is interstate commerce going to really come into play? And how does that change this industry?
Within the industry, the big question is how do we combat the illicit market? Over the last five years, I’ve heard all kinds of different ideas. But in the end, I think we have to out-innovate the illicit market, and that’s what I’m most excited about.
There are new product categories, beverage being one that is starting to gain traction. How are these new products and new variations of the cannabis plant able to treat and help people in ways that we’ve never thought of? That’s part of out-innovation. I was reading an article today about new terpenes that were discovered and how 100 products could come from each one of those new terpenes. I think we’re just still at the tip of the iceberg of product innovation.
How do we fight the illicit market? I think that is just through coming up with new products that treat different illnesses and ailments, that allow customers to get away from pharmaceuticals. Cannabis customers don’t want to buy on the illicit market. They want to buy from a trusted source. It just takes time to make that happen. They’re not going to do it when there’s a huge price difference, but they will do it when there’s a huge product difference. And right now, our products are very similar to what you can find on the illicit market. You can find vapes, you can find gummies, you can find all that in the illicit market. We’ve got to out-innovate the illicit market.
Green: What in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Kenyon: I am the father of two teenagers right now and I really like to learn how to be a better parent to them because it’s really frickin’ tough!
The cannabis business landscape is complex and is under constant review and control. Further, rules and regulations from both federal and state governments can pose additional challenges and barriers to business owners. For those unfamiliar, there is a section of Internal Revenue Code, Section 280E, that prohibits taxpayers who are engaged in the business of buying and selling certain controlled substances from deducting many typical business expenses that other businesses are able to freely deduct.
What is Section 280E and What Challenges Does it Pose?
A dispensary could deduct the cost of the product it sells, but due to Section 280E it would be unable to deduct necessary and ordinary business expenses such as building rent, insurance or employee wages. This can create a significant tax burden, as taxable income is calculated at the gross profit level instead of starting with net income. As a result, Section 280E has become increasingly relevant for cannabis businesses, which have grown substantially in recent years due to more states opting to legalize marijuana. But despite this trend towards legalization at the state level, cannabis with more than 0.3% THC remains illegal under federal law, which raises questions surrounding Section 280E.
In this article, we take a closer look at recent court cases that highlight challenges with Section 280E, the related outcomes and what it means for businesses in the cannabis space.
Challenging its Constitutionality
Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp. v. Commissioner, also known as the Harborside Case, partially involved legal arguments against the constitutionality of Section 280E under the 16th amendment. Harborside argued that income must be present for the IRS to levy an income tax, however Section 280E can frequently cause taxpayers to experience real losses along with taxable income. They argued that they were forced to pay taxes while losing money.
Two circuit courts before this case upheld that Section 280E did not violate either the 8th or 16th amendments to the constitution, leading to the court declining to even address the constitutionality claim. The court addressing a constitutionality issue could lead to unintended consequences for unrelated code provisions, leading this strategy to likely fail due to the mess it could unravel.
Attracting Customers with Freebies
Olive v. Commissioner involved a medical cannabis dispensary that also operated a consumption lounge. While the consumption lounge revenue entirely consisted of sales of medical cannabis, the business also provided services such as health counseling, movies, yoga, massage therapy and beverages at no additional cost. The business attempted to deduct the expenses of these free services as well as the cost of the cannabis itself.
The IRS denied the deductions for the additional services due to the sole source of revenue coming from cannabis sales. The court held that the expenses related to free services were designed to benefit and promote the sales of cannabis and induce further business from its customers.
The court did acknowledge that expenses can be allocated between two separate trades or businesses while still complying with 280E. However, distinct revenue streams need to be established to show the clear separability of the activities and care must be taken to document and support the expense allocations.
Co-mingling Cannabis and Non-Cannabis Enterprises
In the case of Alternative Healthcare Advocates v. Commissioner, the owner of a retail dispensary established a separate management corporation to provide management functions to the dispensary business. The two businesses shared identical ownership, and the management company solely provided services to the joint owner’s dispensary. The management company hired employees, advertised, and handled rent and other regular business expenses on behalf of the dispensary.
Despite the argument from the taxpayer that the businesses were separate entities, and that the management company did not own or “touch” cannabis in any way, the Tax Court ruled that both companies were in the business of trafficking illegal substances. This disallowed expenses on both entities. The IRS argued successfully that the operations of both companies were intertwined. The fact that the management company broke even on expenses and provided no services to any other unrelated entities meant that while legally separate, they were considered part and parcel to each other.
The Solution: Clear Documentation, Allocation and Separation
Californians Helping to Alleviate Med. Problems, Inc. v. Commissioner (CHAMP) involved a public benefit corporation that provided caregiving services along with cannabis to customers suffering from diseases. In this case, the taxpayer argued that they had two separate and distinct lines of service, being the sale of cannabis, and the sale of caregiving services.
While the IRS disagreed with this position and attempted to apply Section 280E to the entire entity, the Tax Court disagreed. It held that the taxpayer was operating with a dual purpose, the primary being the caregiving services, and the secondary being the sale of medical cannabis. The taxpayer’s customers were required to pay a membership fee and received extensive caregiving services, including support groups, one-on-one counseling, addiction counseling services, hygiene supplies and even food for low-income members. While the membership fee did include a set amount of medical cannabis, it was not unlimited. The Court held that the taxpayer’s extensive records and documentation clearly demonstrated two separate and distinct lines of business, with the caregiving being a primary service and the medical cannabis being secondary.
From these court cases and outcomes, it is clear that Section 280E can be confusing. The cannabis industry is a high-risk area, and the IRS has successful court cases to stand behind to back their legislation and agenda. These cases demonstrate two very simple concepts: first, businesses have attempted many creative ways of sidestepping Section 280E and failed; and second, clear documentation and detailed financial records are key, and will be paramount to support any tax positions related to Section 280E.
With the risks associated with conducting business in the cannabis industry, there is a strong likelihood that it will be high on the IRS’ radar over the next few years. Cannabis businesses should carefully consider their interpretation and application of Section 280E as it relates to the costs within their business. It will be important for businesses to utilize and consult with experienced attorneys and cannabis accountants to ensure they not only maintain compliance with federal laws, but also keep up with the changing regulations and court test opinions.
Disclaimer: The summary information presented in this article should not be considered legal advice or counsel and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. If the reader of this has legal questions, it is recommended they consult with their attorney.
By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright 1 Comment
When Montana became a territory in 1864, its legislators chose as its motto the Spanish words “Oro Y Plata” which means “Gold and Silver.” Gold and silver discoveries brought people to the new territory in droves, and everyone expected to get rich.
Nowadays, the newest gold rush to open up in Montana is the state’s adult use cannabis market, which began operation this past January 1, 2022. The Cannabis Control Division (CCD) of the Montana Department of Revenue expects total adult sales in 2022 to top $130M. With a population just over a million residents, that works out to about $120 per person, which would be more than California’s benchmark $111 per person. Montana’s cannabis industry is expecting exciting and enriching times ahead!
We advise our Montana clients to be cautious, however, and to keep an eye on the “cannabis tax ball.” Why? You can be killing it in sales but still get dragged under by a heavy tax burden, especially in adult use sales, or worse, not keep up with your tax obligations and run afoul of the Department of Revenue or Big Brother IRS.
Montana’s initial foray into cannabis began in 2004, when the state passed Initiative I-148, allowing patient cultivation and use of marijuana but left the legality of commercial sales ambiguous.1 The government reactionaries jumped in and used legislative action to tighten and limit that law.2 Then, in 2016, Montana voters legalized the medicinal sale of cannabis with I-182,3 and in 2021, adult use was legalized with I-190, allowing existing dispensaries to sell recreationally beginning January 1, 2022 in counties which voted yes on the initiative.4,5
From a federal taxation standpoint, of course, Montana’s cannabis operators are only allowed to deduct Cost of Goods Sold under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 280E, and in general, the state of Montana’s tax code conforms with the Internal Revenue Code.6,7 However, the Montana Department of Revenue departed from the IRC in 2017 and allowed normal business deductions for licensed (legal) cannabis corporations.8 The Montana Department of Revenue also interpreted the law for pass-through entities and individuals with licensed cannabis operations to allow deductions of ordinary and necessary business expenses.9 This is what makes it possible to do business in cannabis in the state of Montana.
But what about Montana’s cannabis taxes? How big are they, and how do they compare with other states?
Montana charges a regular sales tax as well as either a 4% cannabis tax on medical sales or a 20% cannabis tax on adult use (recreational) sales.10 Some good news: wholesale sales are exempt from this tax.11 More good news: Both the retail tax and the regular sales tax are exempt from the taxable price i.e., the state does not charge “tax on tax.”12,13 However, be warned: be careful of offering discounts as it is assessed on the regular retail price rather than the actual discounted price.
Montana assesses the Cannabis Tax on the retail price and excludes discounts or even product given away.14 As of this writing, Park, Yellowstone and Missoula (medical only for Missoula) Counties have an additional 3% Local Option Tax based on the same state retail price definition with an exclusion for discounts or gifted products.15
So, with all these different taxes, is Montana actually a low tax state for cannabis? To begin with, the state is at least “in the ball game” by allowing the deduction of regular operating expenses on state income taxes. In addition, Montana has a relatively low tax which only applies at the retail level for medical sales and a relatively high tax on adult use. Adult use tends to be the vast majority of sales for dispensaries, so this does not bode well for retail cannabis operators.16
But before you throw in the towel and start looking to move to California (or Oklahoma, another cannabis-friendly state), a look at the whole Montana cannabis picture provides a rosier outlook. Montana income tax is relatively low, and since cultivators and manufacturers do not have to pay any cannabis excise taxes (especially as compared to California, with its cultivation tax and a functional 27% excise tax charged to retailers – a tax theoretically assessed to the consumer but in reality charged by a distributor to a retailer) or cultivation taxes on weight that enters the commercial market. All-in-all, Montana is actually a low-tax state for cannabis operators!
Disclaimer: This article has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice.
Author’s experience with clients from California Oregon, Washington State and Nevada; states with both adult use and medical sales as of this writing. Montana does not have a commercial adult use program as of this writing.
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