On March 31, 2021, New York legalized adult-use cannabis with the passage of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA). Perhaps the most controversial portion of the Act was Section 493(1)-(3), which established taxes on the potency of cannabis products sold by distributors to retailers. Many cannabis advocates condemn this tariff, arguing that it increases the effective tax rate to such a high level that legal cannabis businesses can no longer compete against the illegal operations. A movement to repeal this tax and substitute a flat tax of 20% is gaining momentum.
Potency Tax Rates & Official Projected Total Tax Percentage
The three potency taxes are:
- Edibles (food & beverages): $0.03 per mg of THC
- Concentrates (vapes & resins): $0.008 per mg of THC
- Flower (loose flower or pre-rolls): $0.005 per mg of THC
The THC tax accrues when cannabis is sold from a distributor to a retailer and is paid to the State by the distributor. If the distributor is also a licensed retailer, such as a microbusiness, the tax accrues at the time of the retail sale.
Along with the state excise tax of 9% and the local excise tax of 4%, the New York Office of Cannabis Management has projected a total tax burden of 20% on an average cannabis purchase.
Potentially Higher Total Tax Percentage
Critics of the potency tax say that it drives the total tax rate much higher than official estimates. In a recent study by the Cannabis Service Team of New York law firm Barclay Damon LLP, tax attorney Jason Klimek (Klimek is also chair of the Tax Committee for the New York State Bar Association’s Cannabis Law Section) provided an analysis showing an effective total tax percentage of 31%-41% on a typical cannabis purchase.
Potency Tax Likely to Result in Higher Tax Rates Down the Line
Rachel Wright will be discussing taxes and more on October 17 at the CQC in New Jersey. Click here to learn more. In addition to possibly burdening legal cannabis businesses with higher taxes, a major problem with a potency tax is that it is product-based, not price-based. This means that, if the retail price of a cannabis product is forced down by market conditions, the potency tax remains the same and effectively becomes a higher percentage of the sales price than it was before.
Because legal cannabis businesses are competing with illegal businesses which pay no taxes, it is likely that legal prices will be forced downward in order for those businesses to compete. This is what has taken place in California, as well as in other states with a strong illicit market. It is much harder for legitimate cannabis operators to remain competitive if they’re saddled with a potency tax. Critics of the potency tax point out that, of the 38 states in which cannabis is legal, only Connecticut has a potency tax.
Increased Costs of Compliance and Other Issues
The potency tax requires producers to pay significant lab expenses for testing of products. Plus, the tax burdens small cannabis producers with higher record-keeping and personnel costs just to manage the process.
Another concern is that today’s testing equipment is not accurate enough to provide a precise measure of THC and thus a precise tax calculation. One recent report by a New York cannabis law firm showed how current testing could result in a variance in taxation of 35% as well as in a retail user consuming 35% more THC than expected:
A lab may have a Measure of Uncertainty (MU) of 3% with a confidence interval of 95%, meaning that there is a 95% chance the true value [of THC] will be within ± 3% of the stated value. Under these hypothetical facts, a farmer that produces 1,000 pounds of cannabis that tests at 20% total THC has a product that may actually range from 17% to 23%. In terms of taxes owed, the difference would be a range of $385,560 to $521,640. Presumably, the farmer would be taxed at whatever percentage is reported on the label, but would be able to choose the percentage on the label, so long as it fell within the MU… This results in at least two problems. The first problem is that the government may be shortchanged in its tax collection. Second, there is a public health concern resulting from underreporting… if a farmer is incentivized to report the lower percentage, that could result in a consumer consuming approximately 35% more THC than expected.
State Legislators Take Action
On March 6, 2023, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) and state Senator Jeremy Cooney (D) announced Senate Bill S4831 which would replace the potency tax with an increase in the state excise tax, from 9% to 16%. Combined with the local excise tax of 4%, New York would then have a total “flat tax” of 20%.
Cooney commented, “Replacing the potency tax with an increase in the excise tax will allow licensed operators, including social equity operators, to sell competitively-priced products and be less susceptible to undercutting by illicit market prices without sacrificing revenues.” The bill is currently in the Senate Budget and Revenue Committee.
New York’s potency tax has come to be seen by many as a burden to adult-use cannabis companies. Many believe it results in increased taxation and costs of compliance and leaves the nascent legal adult-use cannabis industry in a less competitive position vis-a-vis those companies that operate illicitly. In addition, the variability of the laboratory measurements used in the calculation of the potency tax opens the door to confusion regarding the correct amount of tax owed to the state and could lead to consumers absorbing significantly higher doses of THC than expected.