Tag Archives: taxation

How to Navigate Section 280E: Lessons Businesses Can Learn from Recent Court Outcomes

By Jay Jerose
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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.

How Section 280E is Still Hindering the Cannabis Industry

By Jay Jerose
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The cannabis industry is an unprecedented industry and one under constant review and control. Following the November 2020 elections, fifteen states and Washington DC have legalized adult use cannabis, a number that will continue to grow as legalization slowly becomes more widely adopted in other states. Beyond that, a continuously growing number of states allow residents to purchase legal medicinal cannabis, and many have also decriminalized adult use. However, it still remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act and is therefore illegal on all accounts at the U.S. federal level, which creates a number of issues for businesses in the cannabis industry duly operating in states where it has been legalized.

Not only is it difficult for cannabis companies to avail themselves of alternative banking solutions, but there are also obstacles in place preventing these companies from taking advantage of notable tax deductions. The primary obstacle being Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E.

What is Section 280E?

Section 280E is a relatively short code section, only 77 words to be exact, but it carries significant weight and can have a debilitating effect on the taxable income of marijuana [sic] related businesses (MRB). Section 280E of the IRC prohibits taxpayers who are engaged in the business of trafficking certain controlled substances, including cannabis, from deducting typical business expenses associated those activities. Section 280E, which was enacted in 1982 during the “War on Drugs” era, has become increasingly relevant for cannabis businesses. The cannabis industry has grown substantially in recent years with annual market values expected to reach $30 billion by 2025.

However, while Section 280E greatly restricts the tax deductions of state-legal cannabis businesses, there is some reprieve. Current IRC provisions permit state-legal cannabis businesses, including growers, producers, wholesalers or retailers, to deduct the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) in computing their US federal income tax liability, despite the application of Section 280E.

Impact of Section 280E on Businesses

 What does Section 280E mean for cannabis businesses today? It is intended to prevent dealers from claiming tax deductions for their business expenses, interpreted to include state-legal cannabis businesses, reduced deductions that result in increased taxable income and MRBs will face higher federal tax rates. 

The IRC disallows any deductions or credits paid or incurred during a tax year if those deductions or credits relate to trafficking controlled substances. The courts have taken the position that the term “trafficking” in this case means “engaging in a commercial activity – that is, to buy and sell regularly.” Simply, the law denies cannabis businesses any U.S. federal income tax deduction for ordinary and necessary business expenses, despite being duly licensed as a legal business in their state of operation.

Typically, the ability to deduct ordinary business expenses means that a business is subject to federal tax on its net income (i.e., gross receipts minus expenses). However, the definition of Section 280E and the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance severely hinders legal cannabis companies from taking advantage of tax deductions for actual economic expenses incurred in the ordinary course of business, which results in a significantly higher effective tax rate as compared to other businesses.

Legal Actions and Challenges to Section 280E

There have been court challenges and concessions made to Section 280E. Specifically, the 2007 court case Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems, Inc., v. Commissioner. This court case reinforced the precedence that Section 280E does not apply to cost of goods sold. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines cost of goods sold to be “expenditures necessary to acquire, construct or extract a physical product which is to be sold.” Generally, for a retail MRB, this means that the direct cost of acquiring cannabis products for resale. Deductions for rent, utilities, wages, insurance and other operating costs common to ordinary businesses are generally disallowed. New York State has specifically indicated that it intends to follow Section 280E for its own income tax calculations, disallowing these same deductions against New York taxable income

Tax Court and Section 280E

The Tax Court has also been aggressive in tamping down efforts by MRBs to separate cannabis related and non-cannabis related activities. The courts argue that these separate activities constitute a single trade or business when they share a close and inseparable organizational and economic relationship. In addition, the risk of cannabis related activities tainting a taxpayer’s other business concerns exists if services or employees are shared between an MRB and a non-MRB. Allocation of expenditures to cost of goods sold, as well as any allocations of costs between MRB and non-MRB entities, need to be well thought out and supported by defensible tax and accounting positions.

The Future of MRBs and Section 280E

All indications point to an increased frequency of IRS audits of MRBs compared to audits of non-cannabis related businesses. Therefore, documenting the methodology behind the calculation of costs of goods sold is even more important for MRBs. It is vital to consult with a tax advisor to ensure you are maximizing your cost of goods sold deductions and preparing the best documentation possible to support your 280E tax positions.


Disclaimer: The 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 or accounting questions, it is recommended they consult with their attorney or accountant.

The Cannabis Industry and Tax Implications of Entity Structure: Issues to Consider

By Calvin Shannon
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This piece is intended to provide some considerations that current and potential license holders should think about as they work with advisors to make entity selection decisions or consider potential tax elections. Please note that this article is a high-level overview and is not intended to declare the best type of entity structure for a license holding entity. Although there are numerous tax variables that should be contemplated, tax issues are not the only concerns relevant to determining entity type. In addition, some states may tax entities differently than how the entity is taxed for federal purposes.

First, let’s look at the legal entity types that may be set up to hold a license, operate a business and what that may mean for how an entity is taxed. Often, entities are set up as either limited liability companies or corporations.

If a limited liability company is organized and the entity is owned by only one owner, a single member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is disregarded for tax purposes. In other words, it would not file a separate federal income tax return, except in some states including CA, TX, TN and RI. All the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity are reported on the tax return of the owner of the entity.

If a limited liability company is set up and the entity is owned by more than one owner, a multiple member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is taxed as a partnership. An entity taxed as a partnership reflects the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity on a partnership return. The partnership generally does not pay tax on the activity, but rather the taxable income and loss are passed through to the owners of the LLC. The owners of the LLC reflect the taxable income or loss on their tax return and are responsible for paying any resulting tax. In the rare instance of an entity being audited, there is a possibility that the entity may have to pay tax on the partners behalf, depending on the ownership structure. Either a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to treat the LLC as a C-corporation or an S-corporation for tax purposes.

The Taxation of C-Corporations & S-Corporations

The default treatment for an entity set-up as a corporation is the entity will be taxed as a C-corporation. An entity taxed as a C-corporation, including an LLC electing to be taxed as a C-corporation, pays the tax on any taxable income generated by activities within the entity.  Additionally, any distributions of earnings from the C-corporation to the owners of the entity are generally considered dividends which are required to be reported as taxable income by the owners when received. In other words, the earnings of an entity taxed as a C-corporation are potentially taxed twice. Once, as they are earned within the entity, and then again upon distribution to the owners of the entity.

An entity set-up as a corporation, a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to be treated as an S-corporation. Like an entity taxed as a partnership, an S-corporation does not pay tax at the entity level, but rather passes the taxable income and loss through to the owner or owners. Additionally, like a partnership, distributions from an S-corporation are not taxable as dividends to the owner when received.

Since we covered how different entities are taxed based on how they are set-up, and what elections they may or may not make, we will explore some of the issues that should be considered when making an entity selection. We will also address potentially electing to treat an entity one way or another for tax purposes. 

S-Corporations 

Advantages: The advantages of an S-corporation are limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, as well as some potential benefits of lower Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Disadvantages: The primary disadvantage of an S-corporation for a license holding company is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s), which then reduces the ownership’s tax basis in its investment in the entity. A reduction in tax basis is determinantal to owners of an entity because the basis is used to reduce taxable income when/if the owner liquidates ownership in the entity.

Other disadvantages of S-corporations include but are not limited to restrictions on ownership of the entity, a requirement for reasonable compensation paid to owners and a lack of flexibility in the allocations of earnings among owners.

Partnerships

Advantages: The advantages of a partnership include but are not limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, flexibility in the allocation of earnings and losses among owners, and flexibility in the type of owners of the entity.

Disadvantages: Like S-corporations, the primary disadvantage of a partnership is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s).

Other disadvantages of partnerships include potential self-employment taxes on earnings allocated to active owners, potential complexity in the allocations of taxable income and losses among partners in entities with many owners or different classes of ownership.

C-Corporations

Advantages: In contrast to S-corporations and partnerships, the tax basis resulting from the ownership’s investment in the entity is not subject to reductions from non-deductible expenses being passed through to owners. This protection of tax basis is particularly important to owners of license holding entities.

An additional advantage of C-corporation tax treatment may be a lower tax rate applied to taxable income.

Disadvantages: The most significant disadvantage of C-corporation tax treatment is the potential double taxation of earnings that might be applicable if the entity does have earnings that are distributed.

In addition to the items address above, the advantages and disadvantages of the entity type and related tax elections, additional considerations include:

  1. How much of the 280E nondeductible expenses will the taxpayer be subject to?
  2. How much earnings will the entity be distributing to the owners?
  3. How complex is the entity’s ownership?
  4. The lack of certainty regarding whether or not the qualified business income deduction (QBID) enjoyed by pass-through entity owners is allowable as a deduction by owners receiving pass-through income from an entity subject to 280E.
  5. Are there plans for selling the entity and if so, what is the time horizon for doing so?

At Bridge West, we advise taxpayers to consult with cannabis advisors who have experience in the industry, can help navigate the complexities of tax compliance and Code Section 280E and are experienced with entity structures.

Massachusetts Lawmakers Reach Compromise on Cannabis Bill

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Election Day last year, voters in Massachusetts approved a measure to legalize recreational cannabis. With recreational sales beginning in July of 2018, lawmakers have tried to get a bill through the state legislature to settle on, among other things, a tax rate and regulatory framework.

On Wednesday, multiple news outlets reported that the legislature has reached a compromise on a bill that would change the measure that voters passed to allow for lawmakers to implement higher taxes, a strategy on local bans and a regulatory framework, reports The Boston Globe.

mpp logo
MPP logo for the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Campaign in Massachusetts

In a statement to supporters, Matt Schweich, director of state campaigns at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the biggest changes are in local control and taxation. “After weeks of persistent advocacy from Massachusetts residents, the Senate and House have reached a compromise that largely respects the will of the people,” says Schweich. “The legislation adjusts the local control policy, allowing local government officials in towns that voted “no” on the 2016 ballot initiative to ban marijuana businesses until December 2019. For towns that voted “yes” in 2016, any bans must be placed on a local ballot for voters to approve.” Therefore if a town wants to ban cannabis sales, they need to bring it to a vote for the people to decide. 72% of the population voted in favor of the ballot initiative. “The maximum tax rate — which depends on whether towns adopt optional local taxes — will increase from 12% to 20%,” says Schweich. “Under the bill, the state tax will be 17%, and the local option will be 3%.” A major push behind increasing the tax rates concerned lawmakers’ worries that the original 12% tax rate would not cover regulatory costs and government expenditures on the industry.

Boston, MA
Photo: Trenton Kelley, Flickr

The ballot initiative created the Cannabis Control Commission, the regulatory body overseeing the industry, with three board members. That agency will remain in the new bill, just with five board members that will write the rules on things like marketing, safety, fines and penalties and fair business practices.

Schweich says the MPP helped orchestrate over 1,000 calls to legislators, urging them to reject the House’s version of the bill, which some have called draconian. “The bill isn’t perfect, and we preferred the original language of the ballot initiative,” says Schweich. “However, given how problematic the House bill was, we are satisfied with the final compromise.”

The bill is expected to pass votes in both the House and Senate on Thursday and Governor Charlie Baker is expected to sign the bill that same day.

Nevada Rec Sales Launch Makes a Big Splash

By Aaron G. Biros
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On July 1st, dispensaries in Nevada began recreational cannabis sales, where thousands flocked to retail shops on opening day throughout the state. In Las Vegas, 38 dispensaries were flooded with customers in long lines, with waits up to three hours, according to the Las Vegas Sun. Nevada joins four other states, Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska, in legal recreational cannabis sales.

38 dispensaries are open for rec sales in Las Vegas
Photo: David Stanley

Another article on the Las Vegas Sun claims the state did a total of $3 million in total rec cannabis sales in the first four days of it being legal. Over the next six months, it is estimated the state will do $30 million in total cannabis sales. According to that article, that generated roughly $500,000 in tax revenue for the state in those first days.

An article in the Reno Gazette Journal quotes Nevada Dispensary Association Executive Director Riana Durrett as estimating roughly $1 million in tax revenue for the state in the first four days. The four dispensaries in Reno that are open for recreational cannabis sales reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars within a few days, according to Will Adler, executive director of the Sierra Cannabis Coalition.

Blum, a dispensary with locations in Las Vegas and Reno, owned by Terra Tech, did roughly $100,000 in revenue on the first day at their Reno location, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. On Friday, July 7th, after a week of record sales, the state acknowledged there might be a shortage of cannabis, with growers unable to meet market demands. In an email sent on Friday, the Nevada Department of Taxation announced Governor Brian Sandoval endorses a ‘statement of emergency’, giving officials the ability to consider more applicants for distribution licenses, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. “Based on reports of adult-use marijuana sales already far exceeding the industry’s expectations at the state’s 47 licensed retail marijuana stores, and the reality that many stores are running out of inventory, the Department must address the lack of distributors immediately,” says Department spokeswoman Stephanie Klapstein. “Some establishments report the need for delivery within the next several days,” says Klapstein. Nevada legalized recreational cannabis on Election Day in 2016, when voters approved Ballot Question 2.

Election Day last year also yielded legal recreational cannabis in Maine, Massachusetts and California, all of which are expected to roll out regulations and implement recreational sales in 2018. Given Nevada’s massive numbers in sales and tax revenue in the first week, many anticipate high opening day sales revenue numbers in Maine, Massachusetts and California.