A new Treasury Department internal watchdog report criticizes the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for failing to adequately advise taxpayers in the marijuana industry about compliance with federal tax laws.
In its review of IRS policy with respect to cannabis businesses, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found that IRS is missing millions of dollars in tax assessments in state-legal markets and that taxpayers experience a significant impact due to an federal tax code known as 280E that prevents marijuana companies from making business deductions that are available to other industries.
Part of the solution, TIGTA said, should be for IRS to “develop and publicize guidance specific to the marijuana industry.”
“Such guidance would improve awareness of tax filing requirements for taxpayers in this industry, such as the correct application of” the policy, “which would reduce the burden of tracking inventory for certain small businesses,” the report, which was released on Monday, states.
280E has long been a source of intense hardship and frustration for the industry. First enacted in the 1980s as a way to block cartel kingpins from writing off yachts and fancy cars, it stipulates that businesses are ineligible for certain deductions if their income is derived from an illegal drug that falls under Schedule I or II of the Controlled Substances Act. While they may qualify for state-level deductions, the federal restriction ultimately means that marijuana businesses are subject to a significantly higher taxable income, increasing their effective tax rate up to around 70 percent.
“Guidance from the IRS would be greatly appreciated. For years, the vast majority of state-legal cannabis businesses have done their best to comply with Section 280E, consulting with tax professionals to get the best guidance possible,” Steve Fox, a strategic adviser with the Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF), told Marijuana Moment. “But the lack of guidance and consistency from the agency has made the process challenging.”
TIGTA’s audit considered the impact of this unique situation in three legal cannabis states in fiscal year 2016. About 60 percent of tax returns for cannabis businesses that were reviewed had likely had adjustments under 280E, which means IRS had about $48.5 million in unassessed taxes. That estimate, of course, is a notably smaller figure than the full impact of confusion surrounding 280E, as more than 30 states allow recreational and/or medical marijuana businesses and this report evaluated firms in only three of them.
Additionally for those three states, TIGTA estimated that the tax impact (i.e. costs associated with filing) for taxpayers to comply with 280E was $95 million, “or $475.1 million when forecasted over five years.”
Finally, the agency took a “statistically random sample of 90 marijuana businesses” that filed state tax returns in Washington State in 2016 to “determine whether these taxpayers were reporting all of their income.” Twenty-six percent of those companies likely had adjustments related to “underreported income or nonfiling of tax returns” for federal purposes.
“When projected over the population for Washington, the IRS missed the opportunity to address $3.9 million of potential assessments for Tax Year 2016, or $19.3 million when forecasted over five years,” the audit states.
“Given the transparency problems caused by lack of banking access—a fact which the IG recognizes—we should probably be a little skeptical of claims of widespread non-compliance,” Morgan Fox, media relations director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “It is tough to say why the IRS would resist providing clarity, especially since that could theoretically result in more tax revenue in the short term.”
“However, the industry doesn’t need clarity on how to comply with unfair policies as much as it needs them to get fixed,” he added. “Cannabis banking and 280E reform would increase transparency and accountability, and greatly simplify the tax process for cannabis businesses. In short order, it would almost certainly result in more federal tax revenue as companies facing less onerous tax burdens become increasingly able to compete with the illicit market and drive more taxable sales.”
Fox of CTF said that the new report “is an acknowledgement that state-legal cannabis businesses are paying hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate taxes to the federal government every year.”
“While the focus of this report is on whether they are fully complying with the absurd 280E tax penalty, the real focus should be on the fact that they are legitimate tax-paying businesses,” he said. “It is time for Congress to fix 280E so that cannabis businesses are treated like every other business in this country.”
TIGTA made six recommendations to ensure compliance and provide needed clarity to taxpayers in the cannabis industry. IRS pushed back on several, including the agency’s request that it create specific guidance.
Recommendation 1: The IRS Small Business/Self-Employed (SB/SE) Division Commissioner should “develop a comprehensive compliance approach… for this industry and leverage State marijuana business lists to identify noncompliant taxpayers.”
IRS response: IRS said it depends on its available resources. It will continue to use its existing methods to identify noncompliance, and if it determines that additional measures are needed, it will “prioritize them based on resources available.”
Recommendation 2: The commissioner should “direct all examination areas to use Aging Reason Codes to track non-[compliance initiative project] marijuana business examination results.”
IRS response: The agency said it will “provide guidance to examiners to apply the appropriate code(s) to cases to track marijuana examinations.”
Recommendation 3: IRS should “develop guidance specific to the marijuana industry such as a Frequently Asked Questions document” and post it on the agency’s site to “improve awareness of the tax filing requirements for taxpayers in this industry, such as the application of 280E.”
IRS response: The agency said it already has an audit technique guide for cash-intensive businesses that could be useful to cannabis companies. However, it said it would “provide additional information” as needed.
Recommendation 4: TIGTA said the IRS chief counsel should work with the SB/SE commissioner to “develop and distribute, internally and externally, specific guidance on the application of” 280E compliance “for taxpayers that report Schedule I related activities on Federal tax returns.”
IRS response: The IRS chief counsel replied that it disagrees with the recommendation and stressed that it has other priorities it needs to fulfill before committing resources to developing that specific guidance.
Recommendation 5: The commissioner should “leverage publicly available State tax information and expand use of [federal/state] agreements to identify nonfilers and unreported income in the marijuana industry.”
IRS response: The agency said that “depends upon IRS priorities and availability of resources,” though it will review the current status of its agreements and use of publicly available state data.
Recommendation 6: The commissioner should “increase educational outreach towards unbanked taxpayers making cash deposits regarding the unbanked relief policies available.”
IRS response: IRS said it will “expand the penalty relief information currently available” on its website.
Although IRS said it doesn’t plan to issue guidance to the industry per the IG’s recommendation, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t appreciate the challenges that cannabis businesses and tax regulators face due to conflicting state and federal laws.
“Cash intensive businesses, particularly those that are illegal under federal law, create additional challenges for the IRS and the taxpayer,” IRS said in response to TIGTA’s findings. “The marijuana industry is largely unbanked due to the illegal status of marijuana at the federal level.”
“The taxpayer’s inability to utilize a bank for these businesses creates concerns of public safety, transparency, and accountability. It also hinders our enforcement efforts as it could minimize the types of third-party information documents available (e.g., Form 1099-K),” it continued. “The lack of available banking services creates an additional burden to the taxpayer, subjecting them to failure to deposit penalties. Legislative changes could address the challenges encountered with Internal Revenue Code (IRC) §280E, banking policies, and public safety.”
Though IRS officials didn’t cite specific legislation, it’s a point that TIGTA also picked up on, and the internal watchdog noted that the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act or the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act are examples of bills that could help resolve the conflict and normalize the industry. The House passed the SAFE Banking Act along largely bipartisan lines last year but it has stalled in the Senate.
IRS emphasized that it’s stretched thin due to budget cuts and hiring freezes in recent years, and that accounts for why it said it must be deliberate in how it prioritizes objectives.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has on several occasions recognized issues related to the lack of access to financial services among marijuana businesses. For example, he’s said, IRS has had to build “cash rooms” to store tax payments from these companies because so many are forced to conduct business exclusively in hard currency.
That said, Mnuchin stressed that it’s not a problem that can be solved administratively, and he’s agued that Congress should take up the issue legislatively.
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.