IRS Madness – Reefer Rules
By Steven A Leahy
On Tuesday, November 4, 2014, Oregon, Alaska and the Washington D.C. made recreational use of marijuana legal. Twenty-one other states allow medical use of marijuana. Illinois now accepts applications from patients for the “Medical Cannabis Pilot Program.” Businesses have sprung up around the country to accommodate the new demand. But the federal government has laws against marijuana – and the IRS enforces those laws through our tax policy. This article will examine our tax laws as applied to those in the “Canabusiness.”
IRS Code Section 280E “prohibits taxpayers from deducting any expense of a trade or business that consists of the trafficking of a controlled substance such as marijuana.” Section 280E was drafted in response to a 1974 case involving a Minneapolis drug dealer. After his arrest, the IRS audited him and assessed taxes based on his drug deals. The convicted drug dealer reduced his tax burden by deducting his drug dealing expenses. He included traveling expenses, rent, telephone, equipment, etc. Congress decided to close the drug dealer loop hole and adopted 280E.
Now that states and jurisdictions have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and have permitted medical use of marijuana the tax laws have changed, right. Well not exactly. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, Marijuana is still a “controlled substance.” The United State Supreme Court has held that “no exception in the Controlled Substances Act exists for marijuana that is medically necessary.”
A number of cannabis dispensaries have found out what this apparent contradiction means. Early on, the IRS interpreted the prohibition to mean that cannabis dispensaries are not permitted any deductions for income tax purposes, including the cost of goods sold. That means dispensaries would be taxed on the gross sales rather than net sales. In a 2012 case heard by the Tax Court in California, Judge Kroupa narrowed that interpretation, holding that the cost of goods sold (COGS) “is not a deduction  but is subtracted from gross receipts in determining a taxpayer’s gross income.” Therefore, COGS can be used by cannabis dispensaries to reduce taxable income. Other expenses (wages, rent, utilities, etc), however, are deductions and prohibited to cannabis dispensaries under the code. Obviously, the loss of any deduction can make a big difference at tax time.
To add to the burdens of cannabis dispensaries, the IRS assesses a 10% penalty on businesses that pay their federal employee withholding taxes in cash, according to the Denver Post. The Controlled Substances Act also prohibits banks from doing business with cannabis dispensaries. The Justice Department and Treasury have changed some regulations to address the concerns of the banking industry. But the banks are still not comfortable with the change of regulations without a change in the law.
Frank Keating, president of the American Bankers Association said “While we appreciate the efforts by the Department of Justice and FinCEN, guidance or regulation doesn’t alter the underlying challenge for banks.” He continued, “as it stands, possession or distribution of marijuana violates federal law, and banks that provide support for those activities face the risk of prosecution and assorted sanctions.”
The banking rules create other problems for cannabis dispensaries. For example, dispensaries can’t get credit card processing accounts, checking accounts or saving accounts. The lack of banking services means the dispensaries deal as a cash business. The large amounts of cash create security problems and IRS reporting concerns.
Those in the canabusiness have been struggling with these IRS problems. If you have IRS problems, you should take action. You need an attorney to help you sort through your options and choose the best remedy. Before you do anything, you should give me a call. We can discuss all your options. Opem Tax Resolutions & The Law Office of Steven A. Leahy, PC (312) 664-6649. Call NOW to set up your FREE Consultation.