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2021 Trends: Nine Developments in California’s Cannabis Market

By Amy Steinfeld, Jack Ucciferri
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While we’re pleased to report that 2020 is almost over, 2021 will be a mixed bag. New jurisdictions will open their doors to cannabis and consumption will continue to rise, but competition from new operators and illicit supplies will increase. As California’s cannabis industry matures and turns the page on a bizarre year, market uncertainty will linger as the pandemic drags on and overtaxation and regulation strangle profits. But let’s remember, cannabis has been cultivated for over 6,000 years and has withstood far worse—this market isn’t going anywhere and will continue to grow and become more impactful.

Access to Traditional Finance Services

The U.S. Senate will likely pass legislation providing cannabis businesses access to traditional banking and financing services. This will be a game changer for the industry. Valuations will go up. Increased liquidity will smooth transactions. Companies will look to affordable debt to expand their footprints and capacity to compete on a new scale. Full federal legalization could be a game changer if 280E tax restrictions are lifted and interstate and international cannabis trade open up, but the timing of this is hard to predict.

Continued Quarantine-Induced Consumption

Cannabis consumption will continue to increase as Californians seek to ease pandemic-related stress, temper quarantine conditions, and sample an eye-popping array of new products. Sophisticated consumers will be open to spending more on unique and niche products. But hemp-derived cannabinoids may present a new source of competition, especially if CBD remains unregulated. By the end of 2021, cannabis beverages will begin to compete with mainstream alcohol categories. Pharmaceuticals will increasingly take notice of this industry and the increasing share of consumers turning to plant-based remedies.

Ever More Cultivation Opportunities 

In pursuit of revenue, agricultural counties will liberalize their policies on cannabis cultivation by permitting more acreage and streamlining permit processes. Neighborhood groups will push back, but policymaker concerns will be assuaged when they see cannabis farms operating innocuously (and sustainably) around the state. Advances in seed breeding, pest-and-disease control, outdoor growing techniques and odor abatement technology will help too.

New Retail

Cities and counties will revisit opening their borders to cannabis retail storefront and delivery as they attempt to fill budget gaps. Many cities will allow cannabis retail for the first time and/or expand the number of licenses available. These new dispensaries will provide a much-needed outlet for the influx of licensed flower and will continue to spur innovation and consumer education. But a “second wave” of retail speculators seems poised to let optimism override judgement, setting themselves up for failure or acquisition by incumbents.

Getting Social Equity Right

2021 will be a pivotal year for social equity, which will establish a foundation for a just cannabis economy. The industry will have to grapple with how to ensure that those most impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and most often excluded from traditional financing exposure are provided with equitable access to meaningful opportunities. As California’s regulated cannabis market grows, getting social equity right will be important if the industry is to firmly establish itself as an inclusive industry that addresses impacts on marginalized communities and responds to customer demands.

Formalizing Appellations  

California’s new CalCannabis Appellations Program will provide cultivators and brands a way to credibly market the value of their unique growing regions and cultivation methods. These distinctions only apply to cannabis planted in the ground, excluding greenhouse and warehouse grows. The expectation is that high-end consumers, trained to recognize place-based designations and quality certifications in other products, will reward products that boast these designations. How many consumers will be willing to pay the premium and how long full implementation of the program will take, remains to be seen.

Prices May Begin to Drop

2020 was a great year for the few fully licensed cultivators in California permitted to sell to the regulated market. 2021 may be different. Numerous licensed cultivation projects will complete the permitting processes and come online next year. While growing demand may outpace supply at first, by Q3 supplies could swamp the market. Premium flower is perhaps an exception. Adding to the pricing pain, as always, is California’s illicit market, which will continue to undercut prices, as legal growers toil to comply with a labyrinth of state and local regulations. Nonetheless, cannabis will remain the most profitable crop on a per acre basis for some time.

Business Turmoil

The drop in prices coupled with continued high taxes and regulatory burdens will result in turnover of assets and businesses. Less efficient and inexperienced cultivators will struggle, many unable to ultimately withstand pricing pressure. Others will be hit by enforcement actions for failing to comply with California’s myriad regulations. Retailers, already burdened by punitive tax structures, real estate finance commitments and onerous local regulations, will need to be disciplined and have a clear strategy to address new competition.

Consolidation

Driven by business failures and renewed investor interest, California’s regulated cannabis industry may consolidate rapidly in the second half of 2021. Institutional finance will enter the space with a much more disciplined approach than prior capital sources. Traditional agricultural interests will invest in cannabis cultivation projects. Well-run retail chains will begin to outcompete, and then acquire, mom-and-pop competitors. Big brands will continue to expand their shelf space, relegating smaller competitors to niche and novelty status.

In short, the cannabis industry will continue to be highly dynamic, exciting, enticing and risky.

Vermont Senate Approves Cannabis Regulation Bill

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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On Tuesday, September 22, the Vermont Senate voted (23-6) to pass a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate adult use cannabis sales. The bill, S. 54, was approved by 92-56 in the Vermont House of Representatives last week. The bill has now made it to Governor Phil Scott’s desk, where although he has not said whether or not he’ll sign it, supporters think it is likely he will.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott

If the Governor signs this piece of legislation into law, it’ll make Vermont the 11th state to regulate and tax cannabis sales. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has a helpful summary of the legislation you can find here.

Back in 2018, Vermont actually voted to legalize adult use possession and cultivation of cannabis, just not to tax and regulate it. Governor Scott signed that bill into law, which is why some supporters are hopeful he will sign S. 54 into law as well.

Currently, only Vermont and Washington D.C. have legislation that legalized cannabis, just not the sale of it. Technically speaking, it is still illegal to sell cannabis in D.C. or Vermont.

The Vermont Senate is also expected to pass a bill that would automatically expunge criminal records for past low-level cannabis possession charges. Check out the MPP summary for that bill here.

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Cannabis Is the Answer to Declining State Revenues

By Carl Silverberg, Seana Chambers
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As states grapple with flagging tax revenues and soaring unemployment as a result of the pandemic, governors and state legislators are facing a quandary. Either cut back on programs that voters like, or increase taxes to keep them funded. According to a recent assessment by iUNU, many legislatures will look to the booming business of legal cannabis as a revenue source.

“For those states that have only made incremental steps towards legalization within their jurisdiction… there’s going to be pressure to initiate, whether it’s through medical marijuana programs or the expansion into recreational,” says Martin Glass, a partner at Jenner & Block who specializes in mergers & acquisitions and securities transactions.

Martin Glass, a partner at Jenner & Block

In recent months, the average per-store retail sale of cannabis increased in legalized states – a telling change given the current state of the economy. Other facts – a loyal consumer base, proven health benefits and strong external investment – all point to a dependable industry. Mr. Glass saw this as a sign that cannabis is more stable than most believe: “The industry has proven to be quite resilient… it has absorbed the COVID-19 shock very well.”

Not only is cannabis a dependable industry, it’s also an expanding one. In 2019, global revenue rose to $15 billion, a 48% increase from the prior year. By 2020, economists expect that number to reach $20 billion. Kristin Baldwin, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, added some perspective: “Right now, we’re at about 240,000 people employed according to the latest numbers I have. Maybe even 250,000. In King County, which is the largest county in Washington and where Seattle is, we had a 22% increase in sales in March alone.”

In the United States, the revenue from annual sales increased by nearly 40% from 2018 to 2019, rising 3.3 billion over the course of the year. This growth is expected to continue at a similar rate in the coming years, forecasted to hit $29.7 billion in revenue by 2025. These growth statistics are impressive and especially attractive as state legislatures and governors search for options to balance their budgets.

Kristin Baldwin, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance

The industry also is logging similarly impressive growth on the employment side. The cannabis industry was recently dubbed “the fastest growing job market in the country” by CNBC, leaping an estimated 110% from 2017 to 2019 and hitting six figures in real numbers during that three-year period. The industry turned in those impressive numbers while constrained to 33 states (11, if evaluated from a recreational standpoint), leaving plenty of room for growth.

Baldwin agreed. “I think employment will grow along with the sales just because you are going to need budtenders, delivery drivers, and farmers,” says Baldwin. “For example, in California, Oregon, and Washington – highly regulated systems – there’s still going to be a significant amount of growth because there’s a significant amount of demand.”

Heading into budget negotiations in 2021, states are facing huge revenue gaps. Right now, those dismissing cannabis are, as Glass says, “leaving a lot of money on the table” by failing to take advantage of a major economic resource. Not only does the industry produce tax revenue to expedite states’ recoveries, as legalization expands, the cannabis industry has the ability to provide thousands of jobs.

Still dubious? Baldwin shared this fascinating piece of information: “It’s a generational shift that’s occurring as we speak. The fastest growing consumer group in cannabis right now is women over the age of 40.”

Illinois Raises Over $10 Million of Tax Revenue in January

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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After just one month of legalized recreational cannabis, Illinois is already seeing a massive return on their investment. According to the Chicago Sun Times, Illinois has raised roughly $10.4 million in tax revenue from their newly legal market ($7.3 million in cannabis tax revenue and $3.1 million in retails sales tax revenue).

When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker first announced their estimated budget before the market was legalized, he predicted that Illinois would generate about $28 million in tax revenue in the first six months. The totals from January more than doubling the predicted per month revenue indicates that his office’s estimates were significantly lower than reality.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker

In total, dispensaries in the state did just under $40 million in sales in January, which makes it the second-largest first month rollout in the country. For reference, Illinois did $39.2 million total sales in their first month which, whereas Nevada took the #1 spot with $39.8 million.

About 35% of the tax revenue that Illinois generates will be used in the state’s general revenue fund, 10% will be spent on previous expenses, 25% goes to the Restore, Reinvest and Renew Program, an initiative for unemployment and preventing violence and recidivism, and the last 30% of that revenue goes towards mental health services, substance abuse services, public education and awareness campaigns as well as a police grant program.

Toi Hutchinson, senior adviser on cannabis control to Governor J.B. Pritzker, told the Chicago Sun Times that the tax revenue from legalization is to be spent on social equity and helping communities adversely impacted by the war on drugs. “Revenue raised in this first month will soon begin flowing back into those communities to begin repairing the damage done by the failed policies of the past and creating new opportunities for those who have been left behind for far too long,” says Hutchinson.

How Cannabis Businesses Can Prepare for Tax Season

By Melissa Diaz
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A Little About 280E

The 280E statute bans businesses from deducting business expenses for gross income associated with the trafficking of Schedule I or II substances. While other businesses can deduct any number of expenses when filing their taxes — employee salaries, rent, equipment, electricity, etc. — 280E limits cannabis companies to only expensing deductions directly related to earning a profit, or the cost of goods sold (COGs).

For example, a dispensary whose square footage is split between 60% sales floor and 40% lobby may only deduct 60% of rent expenses because that’s the portion dedicated to COGs. Transactions do not occur in the lobby, so that portion of the rent is not deductible.

Image: Flickr

So long as cannabis remains a Schedule I substance, companies that produce, sell and otherwise touch the plant in their operations must comply with 280E.

Tips for Tax Success

While taxes can be complex and stressful for cannabis businesses, it is possible to limit the headaches. With tax season right around the corner, here are a handful of tips to ensure a successful filing.

  • Close Out Your Books. Before tax preparation can even start, cannabis businesses want to make sure to close out their financials for the previous year. It may sound like a no-brainer, but with the extra scrutiny facing companies in the industry and the nuances of 280E, it’s extremely important to have fully reconciled and closed-out books to work from when preparing taxes. Incomplete books can cause delays and add unnecessary extra stressors to the process that could result in penalties or additional liabilities.
  • Consult a Cannabis Tax Professional. Once books are ready to go, it’s time to consult a tax professional who has experience in the cannabis industry. A cannabis-focused tax pro will be familiar with the intricacies of 280E and and will be able to identify relevant business expenses to ensure compliance and limit liabilities. In addition to 280E issues, a competent accountant will also be able to highlight any other tax code changes that may impact a business. Every business is different — even in the cannabis industry — and since the tax code is large, complex and prone to new rules and interpretations, it’s important to have a strong accountant guiding the way.
  • Justify Your Numbers. After consulting with a tax professional and identifying relevant business expenses, it’s time to back up the numbers. This is where strong record-keeping comes into play. Ongoing regulatory hurdles limit cannabis firms’ ability to participate in the financial system where, generally, record creation is inherent with each transaction. But in a cash-heavy industry like cannabis, record creation and retention fall on the businesses themselves. This is because cash transactions don’t come with any built-in records. That inherent lack of documentation is yet another potential pitfall for cannabis businesses and taxes since large amounts of cash often raise eyebrows at the IRS. It is up to businesses to provide adequate proof of their tax numbers. Since the IRS will put zero effort into investigating the accuracy of your numbers, it will likely assume the worst when reviewing your filing.

Preparation is King

Taxes can be stressful. But they don’t have to be. Navigating tax season as a cannabis business is all about preparation. By putting in the work and partnering with an experienced tax professional, cannabis operators will be able to avoid penalties, limit their audit risk and stay on track with their business goals.

2020 Financial Trends for the Cannabis Industry

By Melissa Diaz
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The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.

But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.

Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:

Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher

After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.

Image: Flickr

That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.

Expect More M&A and Consolidation

With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.

New Markets & Regulations

The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.

How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.

Image: Cafecredit, Flickr

Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations. 

Credit Card Payments

While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.

While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.

Nevada Lab License Suspended Amid Potency Results Investigation

By Aaron G. Biros
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Back in September, Nevada officials announced a state-wide investigation into how products with high levels of yeast and mold were sold in dispensaries and alleged that labs could possibly be manipulating potency numbers on certificates of analysis. Then in late November, regulators suspended the license for Certified Ag Labs, a cannabis testing laboratory based in Sparks, Nevada.

Nevada regulators issued a press release alleging that products tested at Certified Ag Labs “may be labeled incorrectly and could contain a different level of THC than what is listed on product packaging.” Randy Gardner, a managing member at Certified Ag Labs told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that investigators showed up to his lab in October twice to collect samples for follow up tests.

On November 18, a state notice posted on the door of the lab read, “Registration and License Suspended,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

After that, Gardner fired back. In a statement sent out shortly after, Gardner said they were accused of lying about THC test results to the Department of Taxation (the agency that regulates cannabis in Nevada).

“The state’s decision to suspend and potentially revoke our license came without warning,” says Gardner’s statement. “This accusation is as baseless as it is appalling, as we have been completely transparent with the state at all times. We take this matter very seriously, and based on my over 30 years of laboratory experience we believe these allegations unconscionable at best.”

“The state came in for their audit then came back and suspended our license without us having a chance to further clarify or refute their findings,” the statement reads. “We hope the state appreciates that a business and its employees’ livelihoods and reputations are at stake. We are pursuing our options and all legal and equitable redress will be on the table.”

The Department of Taxation, which isn’t releasing any more information currently, says they found “inaccurate and misleading” potency test results, once they tested the samples collected from Certified Ag Labs.

This isn’t the first time Nevada regulators have suspended lab testing licenses. When Nevada legalized adult use sales and the market became operational back in 2017, the state suspended a lab’s license in September of that year. Then in late 2017, Certified Ag Labs and another lab had their licenses suspended for “not following proper lab procedures and good laboratory practices,” according to Stephanie Klapstein, spokeswoman for the Department of Taxation. Those licenses were reinstated in January of 2018.

MORE Act Passes House Judiciary Committee

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release published by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 24-10 vote. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced The MORE Act (HR 2884), which now has 55 cosponsors. This marks the first time in history that a congressional committee approved a bill to legalize cannabis.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (Image credit: Ralph Alswang)

“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before.”

A little bit of background on the bill: The MORE Act, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis completely on a federal level. It would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, not reschedule it. If the bill were to pass, it would expunge all prior federal cannabis convictions. The bill provides for the establishment of the “Cannabis Justice Office,” which would develop a. program for reinvesting resources in those communities most affected by the war on drugs. That program would be funded by a 5% tax on cannabis commerce in states that have legal regulatory frameworks.

The bill also would allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans, grants and other support to cannabis-related businesses, as well as support state equity licensing programs. Through the bill, physicians in the Veteran Affairs system would be given permission to recommend medical cannabis to patients as well.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

“Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future,” says Smith.

According to NCIA, there was a recent amendment to the MORE Act that includes language from the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). That resolution is based on the white paper that NCIA’s Policy Council published back in March of 2019.

“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” says Smith. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”

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.