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How Marijuana Businesses Can Win Tax Fairness Under Trump Plan

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Following the repeated failure of Congressional Republican plans to pass healthcare legislation, all eyes on Capitol Hill have turned to a tax reform agenda that President Trump and GOP lawmakers are now pushing.

Some marijuana policy observers believe the overhaul provides an opportunity for cannabis businesses to finally break free from a 1980s provision — known as 280E — that forces them to pay a much higher tax rate than companies in other industries.

WHAT IS 280E?

Enacted in 1982,  Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code states:

No deduction or credit shall be allowed for any amount paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business (or the activities which comprise such trade or business) consists of trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any State in which such trade or business is conducted.

While it was initially intended to stop drug cartel leaders from writing off yachts and fancy cars, today its plain language means that that growers, processors and sellers of marijuana — which is still a Schedule I substance under federal law — can’t take business expense deductions that are available to operators in other sectors.

And it doesn’t matter if they are strictly in compliance with state or local policies. Federal law is federal law.

As a result, cannabis businesses often pay an effective tax rate upwards of 65-75 percent, compared with a normal rate of around 15-30 percent.

HOW 280E REFORM COULD HAPPEN THIS YEAR

Over the past several Congresses, standalone bills to amend the provision so that it doesn’t apply to state-legal businesses have earned increasing numbers of cosponsors, but haven’t received hearings or votes.

Now that a broader tax reform package is on the agenda with the support of Congressional leadership and the White House, advocates and industry operators are pushing to attach a 280E fix to the moving vehicle.

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Learn which five GOP House members and three Democrats cannabis businesses need to target with advocacy efforts to win a key committee vote on 280E reform language. 

Plus: See which three GOP senators reformers could pick up key votes from.

(Analysis contains 1,200+ words and an embedded spreadsheet tracking lawmakers’ past marijuana votes).

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UPDATE: Neither the House nor the Senate voted on a 280E amendment as part of consideration of tax reform legislation.

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With support from the targeted House and Senate members named above, cannabis businesses would succeed in attaching 280E reform language to the tax plan at the committee level before the legislation reaches the floor.

THE LOBBYING PUSH

Marijuana business advocacy groups like the National Cannabis Industry Association and the New Federalism Fund are mounting lobbying campaigns to build support for 280E reform on Capitol Hill.

But they aren’t alone. Powerful conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is also working on the issue. In an interview earlier this year, he said he has “brought it up with leadership” but hadn’t yet gotten solid indications that House Speaker Paul Ryan or other members are on board with the plan.

But that could change if a significant number of GOP members make it clear that fixing 280E is important enough to them that they’d make their support for the overall bill contingent on it.

“Marijuana could get into that [tax reform] package if some of the libertarian Republicans made that a condition of voting for the whole package,” Norquist said.

Marijuana businesses that could stand to benefit from a 280E fix and want to bolster the campaign would likely do well to focus resources conducting grasstops and grassroots outreach in the districts of those House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee members singled out in the section above.

COMPLICATIONS

In addition to the tough legislative math in House and Senate committees detailed previously, 280E reform advocates may encounter a bigger problem: The deficit.

While rescinding the provision’s application to state-legal cannabis providers is a matter of basic fairness, it would also, on its face, amount to a large tax cut from current rates for those businesses. And that could be a roadblock to success, as Republicans are already struggling to find ways to pay for broader tax cuts they are proposing in the plan.

While most legalization advocates would gladly agree to a federal sales tax on legal marijuana to make up for the 280E fix, the kinds of broader changes needed to existing drug laws seem far beyond the scope of the tax package.

An even simpler pitfall for 280E reform is that even if it is successfully attached to the broader tax legislation, there is no guarantee that the bill will be enacted. Healthcare reform efforts that GOP leaders put a lot of stake and effort into passing have fallen short on several occasions in recent months. Budget proposals necessary for clearing a legislative path for the tax bill to advance have only very narrowly been approved by the House and Senate, meaning that leadership has very few votes to spare when negotiating the finer points of the legislation.

COMPROMISE APPROACHES

If reformers aren’t able to earn enough support for a full 280E carveout for cannabis businesses, there are two potential compromise approaches they may consider.

One would be to push for a reform that only protects medical cannabis, and not recreational marijuana, businesses. While that would certainly leave a significant portion of the industry behind, it may be more palatable to certain lawmakers. GOP Sen. Susan Collins or Maine, for example, said during a 2014 committee debate on a marijuana banking amendment that she would have supported the measure if it only protected medical cannabis businesses. But, because of its broader reach, she voted against it.

Similar concerns led to the complete removal of banking language between last year’s version of the comprehensive Senate medical cannabis bill known as the CARERS Act and this year’s introduction of new legislation, according to marijuana lobbyists.

Another potential compromise, floated by former Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation staffer Pat Oglesby would enact a 280E fix but maintain the non-deductibility of marijuana businesses’ advertising expenses. NORML has signed off on the plan.

TIMING

This will all move fairly quickly. The House bill will be introduced this week, and the Ways and Means Committee is set to begin marking up the legislation on Monday. The Senate will move sometime after that. Lawmakers have said they plan to have a bill on President Trump’s desk by the new year.

OUTLOOK

The chances of attaching a 280E fix to the broader tax reform plan are non-zero, but broader political factors and whip count math mean that it will be far from an easy task.

A serious, targeted and well-funded lobbying effort aimed at four Republican House members, three Democratic House members and three Republican senators is needed to ensure any chance of success.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators

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Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.

As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.

But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.

State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”

Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”

The memo was silent, however, on the likelihood of enforcement. As of Friday morning, slushies still appeared on menus for some Oklahoma dispensaries.

It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.

Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.

Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

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Yelp Blocks Marijuana Businesses From Two Key Advertising Features

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Yelp is no longer offering two key advertising features to marijuana-related businesses, the company confirmed to Marijuana Moment.

Two cannabis businesses have shared an email from Yelp announcing the policy change. It states that the company had “unfortunate news” and that it will be removing both the “Business Highlights and Portfolio advertising options for cannabis-related businesses, effective immediately.”

“We will be removing these programs from your Yelp page over the course of the next few business days,” the email continues.

The Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), which is the longest-running cannabis dispensary in the country, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it has already seen a significant impact since receiving the notice two days earlier.

“This is yet another blow for us—amidst a devastating pandemic, no less,” BPG Director of Marketing Lauren Watson said. “Yelp was one of only a few effective advertising channels available to legal cannabis companies, and now, without warning, we’re being shut out. Just two days after the new policy was implemented, we’re seeing over a 60 percent decline in page views.”

In a tweet, the chief technology officer of cannabis delivery company Bud.com shared a screenshot of the email from Yelp.

“It’s frustrating to pay taxes and compete with unlicensed folks who can advertise digitally against you,” he said.

The Business Highlights service allows individuals to pay to feature up to six descriptors on their page showing what “makes their business unique” such as “family-owned.” The separate Portfolio option is another paid feature where businesses can include photos of projects they’ve completed “to showcase their quality of work, expertise, and specializations along with additional details such as cost and project timelines.”

A Yelp spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the company made the policy change in February—though these two marijuana businesses said they only received notice of the change this week. Just prior to when the company says it made the decision to block marijuana firms from the premium products, an NBC News investigation found that Yelp’s site included pages for unlicensed cannabis dispensaries, prompting the launch of the verification process.

The company allows “cannabis businesses on our platform in all states where it is either recreationally or medically legal, as it’s important that consumers have access to first-hand information about these businesses,” the spokesperson told Marijuana Moment.

The representative did not directly reply to a question about the reasoning for the policy change. Instead, they discussed how Yelp does not “take revenue from cannabis businesses that have not purchased our Verified License product.”

“By verifying their license to operate, Yelp is able to confirm to consumers that the business has satisfied the requirements of their local regulator to operate legally,” they said. “Once verified these businesses are then eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product only, at this time.”

Asked for clarification about whether verified marijuana businesses are eligible for the two advertising services mentioned in the email announcing the change to current clients, the spokesperson confirmed they are not.

“If a cannabis company purchases Verified License, they’re then only eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product, at this time,” they said.

The company did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about why at least some businesses were not notified about the policy change until this week even though the company says it made the decision four months ago.

“This is just one more example of prohibition discouraging companies from working with legal cannabis businesses, depriving them of the basic and vital services enjoyed by every other industry,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Given Yelp’s size and accessibility, this unfortunate decision will certainly be a blow to many cannabis businesses which are already hurting because of the pandemic, as well as lack of access to relief funds and other financial services.”

“Thankfully, there are some other services out there that can provide business information to consumers which are either tailored to cannabis or are willing to work with related businesses,” he said.

While Yelp provides the verification service for licensed marijuana businesses, the cannabis-focused directories Weedmaps and Leafly have both taken steps in recent months to prevent unlicensed shops from being advertised on their sites. WeedMaps said it removed about 2,700 listings for illegal dispensaries as of January and Leafly reported that it booted about 1,000 as of September 2019.

Nevada Pardons More Than 15,000 People With Marijuana Convictions Under Governor’s Resolution

Photo element courtesy of Flickr/StickerGiant.

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NBA Players Union Head Joins Marijuana Company As League Reportedly Suspends Drug Testing

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The head of the NBA’s players union is joining the board of a major marijuana company at the same time reports are surfacing that players will not be tested for cannabis and other recreational drugs when they convene to wrap up the season in Orlando next month.

Michele Roberts, who has served as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) since 2014, will be the first female board member of the national cannabis company Cresco Labs, the firm announced on Wednesday.

She said in a press release that she will help advance Cresco’s “distinctive brands of high quality products and services, particularly those focused on the promise held by medicinal cannabis to treat conditions and illnesses where more traditional protocols have not met the patients’ needs.”

Roberts added that she is committed to supporting the company’s social responsibility efforts to” better both individual lives and underrepresented communities.”

In her full-time job, Roberts has also advocated for reforming NBA’s marijuana policies, stating in 2018 that she feel “there are substantial signs that support its efficacy and the value that it has for us, especially pain management.”

“We’re in talks with the league to see where we can go with it,” she said at the time. “The obvious future is that marijuana will be decriminalized probably throughout the country in short order.”

Now it seems those negotiations are paying off, with sources telling The Athletic that the league and the players’ union have agreed to suspend testing for recreational drugs, at least for the rest of the current abbreviated season. NBA will continue to test for performance-enhancing drugs, however.

This is apparently an extension of a temporary policy, as players reportedly have not been tested for cannabis during the coronavirus pandemic that forced NBA to go into hiatus earlier this year. It’s not clear if it will be extended indefinitely following the “bubble” tournament housed at Disney World, but negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement are still in the works.

“It’s something that we are talking to Michele Roberts and the players association about, about what our policy should be,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last year. “I think it’s not as much about what guys do in the summer. If they want to smoke pot in the summer, whatever. It’s legal in a lot of states, to your point. No issue. I do think there’s a little bit of concern about some of the pot smoking in-season.”

If NBA does ultimately end marijuana testing, it would be another example of evolving drug policies within national sports leagues. Earlier this year, the MLB announced that players would not longer be tested for cannabis, though they’re barred from being sponsored by marijuana companies.

The NFL also made the decision to end suspensions for positive drug tests as well as limiting the testing window.

Colorado Marijuana Social Equity Businesses Would Be Defined Under New Bill

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

 

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