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.
Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion
The Louisiana Senate approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program on Wednesday, and a committee advanced separate legislation on banking access for cannabis businesses.
The expansion proposal, which the House of Representatives approved last week, would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced the proposal last week and now the full chamber has approved it in a 28-6 vote. Before the bill heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto, the House will have to sign off on an amendment made by the Senate to require dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database.
As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for marijuana.
“House Bill 819 is the new standard for medical marijuana programs. The bill allows any doctor who is licensed by and in good standing with the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to make medical marijuana recommendations for their patients,” Bagley told Marijuana Moment. “The bill also ends the Legislature’s task of picking medical winners and losers each session, and instead allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition that a physician, in his medical opinion, considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Bagley also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for cannabis deliveries to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last week and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.
The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”
It’s not clear if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, they recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible officials will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.
State lawmakers also advanced several other pieces of cannabis reform legislation last week.
A bill introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan (D) to protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators cleared the full House in a 74-20 vote.
That measure was approved by Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs on Wednesday, setting it up for floor action in the chamber.
Also last week, the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution to establish “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands.”
Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”
Legislators have until the end of the legislative session on June 1 to get any of the measures to the governor’s desk.
Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers
A task force comprised of former lawmakers, federal prosecutors and reform advocates issued a series of recommendations on Wednesday about criminal justice policy changes that should be enacted, and that includes creating a waiver system to allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
The Council on Criminal Justice task force was established prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but its new report said the health crisis has “underscored the urgency” of the recommendations. While the group is far from the only criminal justice-minded organization to push for cannabis reform, it’s especially notable because of the backgrounds of its membership.
Sally Yates, who served as deputy attorney general and interim attorney general, is on the task force. So is former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Mark Holden, who was senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, and David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, are also members.
Together, the group agreed on 15 reform recommendations.
While they didn’t endorse federally legalizing cannabis outright, the group said the current conflict between local and national policy is untenable and should be addressed in the interim by creating waivers for states to proceed with marijuana legalization without the fear of federal intervention.
“The federal government must act to resolve this conflict and confusion, by creating an environment that respects sovereignty and by providing a responsible framework in which states can make policy choices,” they said. “Without federal action, the cannabis industry will continue to operate without consistent guardrails and guidance for testing, labeling, and marketing—to minors and all consumers.”
“The Task Force concludes that neither a federal crackdown nor a hands-off approach is advisable. In the absence of cannabis rescheduling, or its legalization at the federal level, the Task Force recommends that Congress and the Administration develop a state waiver process or contractual framework. Without it, states and the industry will continue to exist under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment. A balanced and thoughtful accommodation from the federal government would provide confidence to states, stabilize the market, and help address many of the myriad safety and health problems.”
To implement the recommendation, the group wants the federal government to create an interagency task force including representatives of the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services, among other agencies. Members would be charged with creating policies and standards on best public health practices regarding issues such as product availability, testing, labeling, marketing and child-resistant packaging.
It would also lay out guidelines for banks that work with the cannabis industry as well as guidance, grant funding and assistance to aid law enforcement efforts to crack down on illicit marijuana distribution. Also recommended is an expansion of National Institute on Drug Abuse-supported research on the potential benefits and risks of cannabis as well as the effects of regulatory legal models.
New federal legislation “should provide guidance and assurances to all stakeholders legally operating under the waiver and/or contractual agreement, shielding them from civil and/or criminal liability,” the report says.
Our task force report is the culmination of hard work by the 14-member task force, composed of key leaders in the criminal justice field.
— Council on Criminal Justice (@CouncilonCJ) May 27, 2020
Beyond marijuana, the Council on Criminal Justice task force also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all federal drug crimes in order to reduce the prison population, automatically sealing public criminal records for non-violent federal convictions “including simple possession of controlled substances, following a conviction-free period of no longer than seven years” and establishing “independent oversight of the federal prison system.”
Due to the high rate of substance use disorders in prisons, the task force also recommended enhancing access “to evidence-based treatment services” that can “help break the cycle of substance use and incarceration.” Medication-assisted treatment would be an example of such a service, the report said.
“The pandemic engulfing the world has exposed more fully than ever the deficiencies in our nation’s criminal justice system, and how those deficiencies endanger people, communities, and public safety,” Nutter said in a press release. “Let us honor the pain, suffering, and loss of life that has occurred during this crisis by sharpening and refocusing our work for change.”
Another task force that advocates are eyeing was recently formed to make criminal justice recommendations to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who dropped out of the race in April, teamed up to create the group, and most members are in favor of marijuana legalization, in contrast to Biden’s current position. It remains to be seen whether they will formally recommend adopting broader cannabis reform as part of the former vice president’s platform.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Marijuana Dispensaries Excluded From New York’s Coronavirus Loan Program
Not only are marijuana businesses excluded from federal coronavirus relief funds, but medical cannabis dispensaries in New York are also ineligible for a new COVID-19 loan program that the state is offering.
Under the New York Forward Loan Fund (NYFLF), marijuana shops are specifically excluded, alongside payday loan providers, pawn shops, strip clubs, liquor stores and astrologers. Information pages about the program don’t provide a reason for why dispensaries are considered ineligible.
“The working capital loans are timed to support businesses and organizations as they proceed to reopen and have upfront expenses to comply with guidelines (e.g., inventory, marketing, refitting for new social distancing guidelines) under the New York Forward Plan,” a description of the program states.
This eligibility requirement restrictions come despite the fact that most states, including New York, have deemed cannabis businesses as essential services that can continue to operate during the pandemic.
For the industry in the Empire State, the loan exclusion is another gut punch in a crisis. There have been widespread calls from stakeholders, advocates and legislatures to provide the market with equitable relief from the federal Small Business Administration and, while that so far has not panned out, there’s been hope that states could help fill the gap.
“Given that cannabis businesses are ineligible for federal relief, it is unconscionable for the state of New York to deny them access to state-based relief efforts,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “These businesses have been going above and beyond to provide continuous healthcare, protect jobs, and generate revenue for the state under terrible conditions just like other essential services.”
“Leaving them in the lurch like this is a tremendous disservice to the people who risked their health to provide medical cannabis to the people that need it, and will stunt the ability of the industry to recover and grow at a time when the economy needs it most,” he said.
Katie Neer, chair of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association and director of government relations for Acreage Holdings, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “unfortunate that medical cannabis operators, which are licensed and regulated in New York, and help thousands of patients manage a wide range of ailments, conditions, and illnesses, continue to be lumped in with other so-called ‘sin’ businesses, like pay-day loan stores, massage parlors, and strip clubs.”
“The reality is that New York’s medical cannabis program, established by the governor and Legislature in 2014, is one of the most restrictive in the nation,” she said. “As a result, the industry was struggling prior to the pandemic, even as it was deemed ‘essential’ and continues to serve patients throughout the crisis.”
“While we are eager to participate in the economic recovery at both the state and federal levels, accessing capital has long been a struggle for cannabis operators due to cannabis remaining a federally illegal schedule I drug. We applaud the state’s $100 million New York Forward Loan fund to support small businesses, but we regret not being able to participate due to inconsistencies between state and federal law. To that end, we urge the US Senate to include the SAFE Banking Act in the next federal aid package, which would improve the cannabis industry’s access to capital and ensure that state administered efforts like this one can include state-legal cannabis operators.”
It’s possible that because this loan program is the product of a private-public partnership involving several large national banks, the cannabis exclusion could be related to perceived risks associated with providing financial services to a federally illicit market.
While New York might not be extending state-level relief to cannabis businesses, lawmakers in Massachusetts are actively considering legislation that would establish a coronavirus relief program for marijuana firms and other companies that are left out of federal aid.
In the meantime, at the federal level, the House passed a COVID-19 package that does contain language that would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Advocates argue that this would mitigate the spread of the virus in a heavily cash-based industry.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also introduced a bill last month that would extend SBA access to marijuana companies.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was recently asked why the state hasn’t legalized cannabis for adult use as a means to generate much-needed tax revenue during the pandemic. He said it’s a policy change he expects will happen, but it’s a “complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”