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Four Payroll Best Practices for Cannabis Companies

By Michelle Lanter Smith
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Among the myriad business challenges facing cannabis companies, processing payroll ranks right up there. On top of the industry’s overarching banking and regulatory hurdles—not to mention prohibitive tax liability—its varied, sometimes unconventional pay models can fall outside the scope of traditional payroll processing.

Obviously, despite the many business issues clamoring for attention, the cannabis industry is powered by people—and for a business to succeed, employees must be paid accurately, legally, and on time.

While the industry is still evolving in many respects, there are steps cannabis businesses can take right now to ensure payroll is processed correctly and compliantly—including these four best practices.

1. Implement Foolproof Tracking Processes for Each Pay Model

In addition to salaried and hourly employees—who can be difficult to time-track, depending how they’re distributed—some growers pay bud trimmers by the ounce or pound of trimmed, manicured product. While such productivity-based compensation may make absolute sense for your business, most conventional time and attendance and payroll software isn’t equipped to administer this pay model.

As a result, some companies may resort to manual tracking—but that can create regulatory recordkeeping challenges of their own. The answer: flexible time and attendance software that allows companies to track employees’ time and/or productivity using a variety of data collection methods for different elements of the workforce. It may mean using conventional biometric time clocks at processing facilities and retail dispensaries…mobile time-tracking apps for gardeners and growers in the field…and versatile apps that track employee output by work order or piece rate, however your business chooses to define it.

Furthermore, regardless of how it’s collected, all that data needs to flow seamlessly into your payroll processing system, ensuring pay is calculated correctly for every pay model. The HR payroll software is out there, but you may need to look for it.

2. Verify that Your Payroll Provider Is Cannabis-Friendly

Perhaps you’ve heard horror stories of cannabis companies getting abruptly dropped by their software providers with a mere 30-days’ notice. Some leading HR payroll software companies have made seemingly overnight decisions to withdraw from servicing the cannabis industry, leaving employers struggling to pay their people. Who can implement new HR payroll software in 30 days?

Make sure your payroll provider is committed to serving the cannabis industry for the long haul. If the commitment isn’t there, start looking elsewhere. Beyond avoiding potentially damaging business disruptions, partnering with a software provider that actively services the cannabis industry will offer unique capabilities you may not find elsewhere.

3. Become an Expert on IRS Code 280e (COGS)

Thanks to section 280e of Internal Revenue code, state-compliant cannabis business cannot deduct business expenses except for the cost of goods sold (COGS).

The saving grace here for growers and processors: labor costs that are inventorial in nature are considered cost of goods sold. That includes the cleaning, trimming and curing of product, as well as packaging and inventory labor.

Therefore, for tax purposes, it’s critical to assign each employee a specific title and role within your operation. This is particularly important for vertically-integrated companies whose employees wear more than one hat.

Say, an employee works part time in cultivation and part time in your retail dispensary. You need to be able to track their work time and compensation separately—i.e., you need a time and attendance system that can track split shifts—and keep detailed records of what labor costs are and aren’t deductible.

 4. Consider Integrated HR Payroll Software

Because of payroll challenges, many cannabis businesses are still piecing together disparate HR systems, such as applicant tracking, time and attendance, payroll and benefits. But when their integration isn’t flawless it can create the need for duplicate inputting and elaborate manual workarounds.

Furthermore, a patchwork software can stop businesses from accessing reports and analytics that inform decision-making and better position the company for growth—while also ensuring the company is in a position to provide whatever regulatory information may be required.

The answer: choose a payroll provider that offers complete, integrated HR payroll software—one that that can demonstrate its long-term commitment to serving the state-licensed cannabis industry.

Taxes & Cannabis: 280E, R&D Credits, 199A & Qualified Opportunity Funds: Part 2

By Zachary Gordon, Jason Hoffman
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Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in a two-part series delving into tax issues. Part one discussed tax code 280E as it pertains to cannabis businesses. Part two will go into research and development credits, 199A and a discussion of risk as it relates to Qualified Opportunity Zones. 


While 280E is the most influential code section for the cannabis industry, structuring never happens in a vacuum. There are many open questions that each business must answer for themselves without court adjudication. We believe that among the riskiest of questions is whether a cannabis business can claim research and development credits.

There is no clear legal authority that either allows these credits or disallows them but certainly utilizing such credits comes at great risk. At the beginning of this article we talked about Congress and the purpose of 280E. Congress’s intention was to make sure that only the minimum required tax deductions were available to Schedule 1 and 2 sellers. A cannabis business receiving a research and development credit would not be with the intension of Congress. While the credits would be computed based on COGS expenditures, at this time we do not believe that a cannabis business should take this credit. Disallowance of COGS would create a constitutional challenge which is why Congress allowed the COGS deduction. Disallowance of Research and Development Credits does not open up the same constitutional issue since the credit is not part of COGS although calculated based on COGS expenditures. 280E states very clearly that credits arising from other code sections are disallowed in the entirety.

More recently the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) opened up new issues for cannabis companies that are still unfolding. Two of the most publicized are Qualified Opportunity Funds and Section 199A, the 20% deduction (Qualified Business Deduction).

The 199A deduction allows eligible pass-through entities to claim an additional deduction of 20% of the income (subject to certain limitations) at the individual level potentially lowering the tax rate from 37% to 29.6%. While the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and others have asked the IRS to clarify if 280E would make a cannabis business ineligible, the final regulations on the subject did not address this issue. There are other significant limitations and hurdles in 199A regulations that any business would have to first pass to be considered for the rate deduction. If a cannabis business meets all other eligibility and limitation criteria, should the pass-through income to their investors be qualified income under 199A? The answer will depend on whether the courts will treat this “deduction” as falling under the general prohibition of 280E.

We believe that there is a reasonable chance that the courts will allow the 199A deduction for cannabis companies. That does not mean, however, that we advise cannabis companies to claim this on their pass-through returns as Qualified Business Income. Much like everything else, it depends on the particular business and the risk profile that management is willing to tolerate. This is one area of tax law that is sure to be challenged in court. The more risk-averse business should pass on claiming this deduction on their returns, but monitor development with an eye to amending at a later date if favorable precedent emerges. If the amounts are large enough, consideration should be given to applying for a Private Letter Ruling, but that also has its own tax risks.

Another new tax incentive that was in the TCJA was Section 1400Z or Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZ). The incentive allows for the deferral of capital gains until December of 2026. The use of 1400Z also results in up to a 15% decrease in capital gains tax- and tax-free appreciation if all requirements are met. While the IRS has only released proposed regulations and we anticipate significant changes to them when they are released as final, there was nothing in the proposed regulations limiting cannabis businesses from using Qualified Opportunity Funds (QOF) in their structure. It is interesting to note that the TCJA and proposed regulations did list other types of businesses that could not make investments under 1400Z along with all its benefits. Liquor stores, golf courses and sun tan parlors were among those listed but cannabis growers and dispensaries were not.

As the industry continues to mature, new issues and precedents will require CPAs and attorneys to find new solutions to best serve the industry.Using Opportunity Zones to entice investors sounds like a great opportunity, but there are significant risks. The first risk is that the proposed regulations, while currently proposed, may not be final. There is always a chance that the IRS will take a different position when the final regulations are released and add cannabis to the type of businesses that do not qualify. Another risk, and one that was previously mentioned as part of 199A and other areas of structuring, is that the IRS and the courts can always disagree with the taxpayer’s position. This is a new area of tax law and will eventually be litigated. The loss of the Opportunity Zone benefits can significantly change the return to the investors and lead to other issues.

All of these issues come into play when structuring businesses in this industry. These issues must be evaluated as they pertain to the business needs. This can be very complex and requires a great deal of research for each business opportunity. We have found that professionals operating in this industry like to know about all of their options. The most important thing we can do for the industry is to continue to educate the professionals working in it.

Accountants should be available to assist their clients and their clients’ attorneys with structuring techniques aimed at asset protection and minimizing 280E disallowances. Accountants should also be ready to speak to the questions outlined above and be prepared to explain the risks associated with each choice. As the industry continues to mature, new issues and precedents will require CPAs and attorneys to find new solutions to best serve the industry.

Taxes & Cannabis: 280E, R&D Credits, 199A & Qualified Opportunity Funds: Part 1

By Zachary Gordon, Jason Hoffman
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Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in a two-part series delving into tax issues. Part one discusses tax code 280E as it pertains to cannabis businesses. Part two will go into research and development credits, 199A and a discussion of risk as it relates to Qualified Opportunity Zones. Stay tuned for Part two coming next week!


When building a knowledge base in the cannabis industry as a CPA, one’s tax research typically starts with Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E. For those that are unfamiliar, 280E is only three lines long. With this in mind, we at Janover realized that we needed to understand the context for this highly influential tax section.

The genesis of 280E dates back to 1981 with a Tax Court case: Jeffrey Edmonson v. Commissioner. The decision in this case was that a seller of cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis could deduct most business expenses, cost of goods sold, packaging, home, phone and automobile expenses relating to the seller’s illegal business.

In 1982, 280E was enacted to reverse the Edmonson decision and deny sellers of Schedule 1 or 2 controlled substances the right to deduct business expenses. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government defined Schedule 1 drugs as drugs that have no currently acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse. Since cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, cannabis businesses were unable to deduct most business expenses.

To get a better understanding of what the legislators were trying to accomplish, House and Senate reports provided insight into what their goals might have been. Under the Explanation of Provision, the Senate Report reads:

All deductions and credits for amounts paid or incurred in the illegal trafficking in drugs listed in the Controlled Substances Act are disallowed. To preclude possible challenges on constitutional grounds, the adjustment to gross receipts with respect to effective costs of goods sold is not affected by this provision of the bill.

As the Senate Report explanation provides, 280E specifically excluded cost of goods sold (COGS) from the disallowance of deductions. This treatment was affirmed by the Tax Court in 2012 in Olive v. Commissioner (139 T.C. 19 2012).

To date, there are not many cases that have dealt with the tax issues of 280E. In a 2007 decision involving Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems (CHAMP), the Tax Court ruled that a taxpayer may deduct expenses allocable to an affiliated business that was separate from the entity “trafficking in a controlled substance.” In CHAMP, the legal caregiving business, which was a separate business, was able to deduct the allocated portion of shared expenses. This set a legal precedent that allowed a taxpayer engaged in the selling of a Schedule 1 or 2 controlled substance to distinguish expenses incurred on behalf of other non-prohibited business lines and deduct these expenses.

In addition to these court cases, tax professionals can rely on IRS Chief Counsel Memorandum CCA 201504011. The IRS Chief Counsel released this memorandum in January 2015 in order to respond to questions the IRS was receiving from practitioners.

Although Chief Counsel Memoranda, in general, may not be cited by taxpayers as precedent, this memorandum is the current and best authority outlining the IRS’s position with respect to the extent to which a cannabis business may deduct business expenses. The memorandum also refers to IRC Section 162, ordinary and necessary business expenses that would be disallowed, as well as separately identifying certain direct and indirect business expenses that would be allowed. Citing methods in Treas. Reg. 1.471, the memorandum states that a cannabis producer may allocate to inventory and COGS direct production costs, including direct material costs (Cannabis seeds or plants), direct labor costs (e.g., planting, cultivating, harvesting, sorting, etc.), and transportation or other costs to acquire of the cannabis. It also indicates certain indirect costs that may be taken as COGS.

As the industry continues to mature, more cases are finding their way to the Tax Court. On June 13, 2018, the Tax Court issued a ruling in Alterman v. Commissioner that specifically disallowed the use of 263A under 280E and applied only Section 471 to determine COGS. While we need to follow the facts and circumstances of each case, the broad language used might very well disallow capitalizing of inventoriable costs for companies subject to 280E.

IRC Section 471 is the general rule for inventory accounting for tax. IRC Section 263A is the uniform capitalization rules for tax. Most businesses need to utilize both 471 and 263A when accounting for inventory and to properly capitalize costs into COGS.This opinion may have lasting effects on the part of the industry trying to create brands associated with their cannabis products.

Many resellers and retailers of cannabis thought they could use 263A to capitalize more costs into inventory decreasing their tax burden. The Chief Counsel Memorandum disagreed and more recently the Tax Court in Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp v Commissioner sided with the IRS and upheld some of the precedents set in Alterman v. Commissioner. In siding with the IRS, the judge concluded that a taxpayer who is subject to 280E can only deduct costs of goods sold under 471 as the IRC existed when 280E was enacted (in 1982). The taxpayer in the case used two arguments that were not new to the cannabis industry, but to no avail. The first argument was that the business was not trafficking in a controlled substance because the government had abandoned a civil forfeiture action. The second argument that was rejected was that a portion of the business involved branding, marketing and the sales of other non-illegal products. The claimant tried to convince the court that deductions related to these operations should not be subject to the same disallowance of deduction as outlined in 280E.

This second argument is very important for structuring purposes. The court used a significant portion of its opinion to address why the entire business is integrated and completely subjected to 280E. This opinion may have lasting effects on the part of the industry trying to create brands associated with their cannabis products.

This case has even more implications given part of the ruling in which the courts stated that being state licensed in no way effected the Schedule 1 determination at the federal level and, therefore, subjected them to 280E. The judge went so far as to separate the Department of Justice, which enforces the Schedule 1 status of cannabis, and the Department of the Treasury, which has full authority and enforcement rights to treat cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug subject to 280E for income tax purposes. This ruling made it clear that even if the Department of Justice is not pursing criminal charges against state-licensed cannabis businesses the IRS is not precluded from fully enforcing the Internal Revenue Code.

NCIA Federal Policy Update: Q&A with Aaron Smith

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.

We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

CannabisIndustryJournal: With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?

Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.

CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?

Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.

The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.

CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?

Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.

The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.

CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?

Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.

Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.

Bipartisan Cannabis Reform Effort Unveiled in Congress

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith, seven measures were introduced today at the Capitol, covering a variety of issues that, if signed into law, would ease many of the legal implications on the federal level affecting cannabis businesses in legal states currently.

In a very important development, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, joined Rep. Earl Blumenauer as a lead sponsor of the 280E tax reform bill. According to an NCIA press release, that bill is The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 and was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

That bill gives cannabis businesses in legal states the opportunity to take business deductions like any other legal business. Right now cannabis businesses cannot deduct any expenses related to sales, given its Schedule I status. “Cannabis businesses aren’t asking for tax breaks or special treatment,” says Smith. “They are just asking to be taxed like any other legitimate business.”

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act in the House, which would put cannabis in the section of code that regulates intoxicating liquors, essentially giving the ATF oversight authority. “The flurry of bills on the Hill today are a reflection of the growing support for cannabis policy reform nationally,” says Smith. “State-legal cannabis businesses have added tens of thousands of jobs, supplanted criminal markets, and generated tens of millions in new tax revenue. States are clearly realizing the benefits of regulating marijuana and we are glad to see a growing number of federal policy makers are taking notice.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Photo: Michael Campbell, Flickr

Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer introduced The Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap (RAMP) Act, which addresses banking and tax fairness for businesses, civil forfeiture, and drug testing for federal employees. Both Blumenauer and Wyden represent Oregonians, who could benefit tremendously if it becomes legislation. Rep. Blumenauer also introduced The Marijuana Tax Revenue Act, which would put a federal excise tax of initially 10% on cannabis sales, then rising to 25% after five years, according to the NCIA press release.