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Jim has spent his career advising individuals, non-profit organizations, closely-held businesses, and Fortune 100 companies on tax law, including federal and multi-state tax controversies. A frequent blogger and speaker on local, state, and federal tax issues, Jim's current focus is on the ever-changing cannabis industry and the regulations governing it.

cannabis 280E marijuana taxOn June 13, the U.S. Tax Court issued an opinion regarding the application of IRC §280E. In Alterman v Commissioner of Internal Revenue (“Alterman“) the Court held, yet again, that IRC §280E operates to disallow a cannabis businesses’ tax deductions. A few days later, the Court also issued Loughman vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (“Loughman“). In that case, the Court held that IRC §280E disallowed the deduction of wages paid to S Corporation shareholders. The disappointing but predictable outcomes in these cases highlight the need for Congress to repeal or modify IRC §280E.

By now, the destructive force of IRC §280E is well known. IRC §280E disallows deductions and credits to a business trafficking in a controlled substance. One exception is cost of goods sold (“COGS”). Other than a 2015 IRS General Counsel memorandum, the IRS has not offered much guidance regarding the application of IRC §280E. With this gap in IRS guidance, it is the courts that have outlined the (fairly narrow) parameters of IRC §280E.

Reading the IRS guidance and court rulings together, it is clear that selling or growing cannabis is always considered trafficking and expenses related to such activity are disallowed. A cannabis business can deduct all expenses related to a separate trade or business. A court is more likely to accept a separate business activity if that business can operate independently of a cannabis business.


Alterman does not offer broad guidance regarding IRC §280E. In part, this is because the Court issued a Memoranda opinion.  A Memoranda opinion does not set a precedent for taxpayers; however, they are useful to illustrate how the Court may analyze the law.

Laurel Alterman and William Gibson operated a Colorado medical marijuana grow and dispensary. These taxpayers also sold cannabis paraphernalia, hats and shirts. The Court held that the sale of paraphernalia, hats and shirts was not a separate trade or business primarily due to the lack of records. Accordingly, costs associated with these activities were not deductible under IRC §280E.

In addition, the Court determined that certain costs were not allowable as COGS because of insufficient records, which should be a lesson to any cannabis business owner: It’s not enough to have potentially deductible costs, if you don’t keep records! Interestingly, the opinion uncharacteristically discusses, in detail, the records available, only to hold that those records were insufficient. (Court cases that disallow deductions because of poor recordkeeping typically do not discuss in detail, the records examined.)

Because of the fact-specific nature of this case, Alterman offers little guidance to cannabis businesses other than recordkeeping must be sufficient to support deductions.


In Loughman, the Court did not address the issue of record keeping or substantiation. Instead, the Court addressed the issue of double taxation of income because of IRC §280E. And the Court concluded that double taxation is allowed.

Jesse and Desa Loughman were licensed in Colorado to grow and sell cannabis through a Colorado corporation, Colorado Alternative Health Care (“CAHC”). The Loughmans were the sole shareholders of CAHC and elected to be treated as an S Corporation for federal tax purposes.

An S corporation is not subject to tax; instead shareholders are taxed on S Corporation income at the individual level. Special rules treat S Corporation shareholder/officers as employees and require the S Corporation to pay them a reasonable wage. Under ordinary circumstances, an S Corporation deducts shareholder/officer wages; the shareholder/officer then pays income tax on the wages. The S Corporation’s deduction of wages prevents double taxation.

In this case, the IRS applied IRC §280E and disallowed CAHC’s deduction for wages paid to the Loughmans. Consequently, the amount of S Corporation income passed through to the Loughmans increased. The result is that the Loughmans wages are taxed twice — first as an employee and then as S Corporation shareholders.

The Court rejected the argument that IRC§280E discriminates against S Corporation shareholders operating a cannabis business. The Court reasoned that wage payments to a third-party performing the same services as the Loughmans would not be deductible under IRC §280E. Accordingly, the amount of pass through income to the Loughmans would not change: IRC §280E applies equally to increase S Corporation income, regardless of who receives wages. Furthermore, the Court noted that the taxpayer did not have to, but chose to, elect S Corporation status for their cannabis business.

As in Alterman, the Court issued a memorandum opinion. Accordingly, the Court’s determination only applies to the Loughmans and does not set precedent. Nonetheless, the Court highlighted a serious disadvantage to operating a cannabis business through an S Corporation– namely, double taxation.


So where does that leave us? These cases highlight the dire need for a legislative fix of IRC §280E. On June 7, 2018, Senators Gardner and Warren introduced the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (The “STATES Act”). The STATES Act exempts persons from the Controlled Substances Act, so long as they are acting in compliance with a state’s cannabis law. Specifically, under the STATES Act, the production or sale of cannabis in a cannabis legal state “shall not constitute trafficking”. Because IRC §280E applies to a trade or business that consists of trafficking, the STATES Act would effectively eliminate the impact of IRC §280E.

As more cannabis businesses are audited, expect more cases like Loughman and Alterman to move through the system. In addition, expect similar results on similar facts, unless Congress finally takes action. The STATES Act would do a lot of good for the industry, and eliminating the oppressive impact of IRC §280E is high on the list.

Your cannabis business should have a team of professionals and advisors on which you can rely. Our cannabis business lawyers are often asked to recommend accountants who work with cannabis businesses. Like choosing a good attorney, choosing a good accountant is essential to the success of your cannabis business. The right accountant can be a huge asset to your business.

Many cannabis investors own other businesses and may already have an accountant they trust. But because the laws governing the accounting profession do not offer much protection to Certified Public Accountants’ (“CPA”) working in the cannabis industry,  some skilled CPAs choose not to work with cannabis businesses, while others simply do not want to spend the time required to develop the expertise related to cannabis business accounting.

Therefore, when evaluating whether an accountant is a good fit you should ensure the accountant has a strong grasp of IRC 280E and cannabis accounting, all while keeping in mind the following three things.

cannabis marijuana accountant CPA

Understand the Types of Accounting Professionals

It is helpful to understand the core skills of the CPA, the bookkeeper and the Enrolled Agent.

A CPA is a Certified Public Accountant. To qualify as a CPA one must take a certain number of accounting related courses, pass a rigorous examination and be licensed in at least one state. Only a CPA may audit, review and give an opinion on a business’s financial statements. The CPA gives assurances (i.e., “certifies”) that financial statements may be relied upon by third parties such as a bank or a potential investor.

The role of the bookkeeper is to review all of a business’s transactions and assemble this information into useful financial information. Bookkeepers also sometimes prepare state tax returns and other government filings.

Another category of accounting professional is the Enrolled Agent (“EA”). The EA may prepare tax returns and otherwise represent clients before the Internal Revenue Service. To qualify as an EA, a person must pass a comprehensive IRS exam or have experience working for the IRS.

Look for Honesty and Diligence and More

This is the baseline for evaluating all professionals. Though it seems obvious, some accountants in the cannabis industry fall short and the below are some red flags:

  • Your accountant does not respond to you. Skilled accountants are busy and need to balance their work so all their clients are treated fairly. It may take a skilled accountant longer to complete a project than you wish. However, an accountant that does not call you back or keep you informed simply cannot help your business.
  • Your accountant takes shortcuts. This is often marketed as “creativity.” The cannabis industry is fast-paced, takes guts and is highly regulated. It is understandable that you would want to move your cannabis business forward as quickly as possible. Though you may find yourself tempted to “fudge” representations to get things done faster, making misleading statements on tax returns or bank applications or even on your own books and records or otherwise omitting key information will only hurt your business and its owners. A skilled accountant protects its clients from these temptations.
  • Your accountant does not understand legal entities. The fundamentals of accounting require reporting financial operations by legal entity, not merely by business group. For example, the same group of investors may own several cannabis dispensaries. If each dispensary operates as a separate legal entity, separate books and records must be kept for each of the legal entities. This is required both for tax reporting purposes and for recording the information necessary to comply with a state’s licensing requirements.

Transactions between commonly owned legal entities should reflect actual business practices and legal agreements and they should be documented with legitimate contracts. It is the legal agreements and business practices that dictate how a transaction is recorded on the books, not the other way around. Recording a transaction as a loan between two legal entities is proper only if supported by a valid loan agreement. Payments between two legal entities for management services must be supported with a management services agreement.

Restructuring legal entities is a function of state law not accounting entries. For example, the merger of two corporations must be reflected in corporate governance documents such as board of director resolutions and filings with the Secretary of State and if such corporate formalities are not followed the merger will not be recognized by state law. Only after the merger is recognized under state law should an accountant record this transaction. Beware of an accountant who records transactions unsupported by legal documentation.

Choose an Accountant with a Strong Professional Network

Skilled professionals know other skilled professionals. A good accountant will look out for your interests and refer you to another professional when appropriate. Accountants can help you with budgeting, minimizing costs, evaluating financial opportunities and complying with tax and financial reporting. However, your accountant should not prepare legal documents or create legal entities. Your accountant also should generally avoid taking a financial interest in your company, underwriting insurance policies, and/or acting as your broker.

A good accountant can help you meet your financial goals. There are many skilled accountants working in the cannabis industry and it is important you find one right for your cannabis business.

industrial hemp tax 280E
Not always taxed like marijuana, in theory.

Short answer: It depends.

As we discussed last week, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Hemp Industries Assn., vs. U.S. Drug Enforcement Admin., upheld the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) broad rule creating a separate classification for “Marijuana Extracts.”  Marijuana Extracts are broadly defined as “any extract containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis”. The ruling received an extraordinary amount of press, but lost in all of this breathless reportage was a very important point for a certain class of hemp businesses: The Court explicitly stated that the 2014 Farm Bill (“Farm Bill”) preempts the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Accordingly, expenses incurred through an activity conducted strictly within the parameters of the Farm Bill arguably are not subject to IRC §280E.

Businesses that are operating outside the narrow parameters of Section 7606 of the Farm Bill, however, whether trading in hemp or any derivative product, will have to deal with IRC §280E. As a refresher, the Farm Bill allows a state to grow “Industrial Hemp” if it has implemented an official agricultural pilot program. These pilot programs, generally administered through state Departments of Agriculture, issue licenses or permits to businesses and individuals, allowing the cultivation of “Industrial Hemp.” That cultivar is defined as any part of the cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis. If a plant contains 0.3% or more THC on a dry weight basis, or is not cultivated by a pilot program licensee, the cultivator is operating outside of federal law and hence subject to IRC §280E.

So why is this such a big deal? As we explained previously, IRC §280E prohibits a deduction for any amount paid or incurred in carrying on any trade or business that consists of trafficking in a Schedule I or II controlled substance under the CSA. Accordingly, any industrial hemp business conducting the following activities is possibly subject to the horror of IRC §280E including:

  • Food and Body Care;
  • Textiles;
  • Building Material; and
  • Cannabinoids.

If IRC § 280E applies to a hemp business, that business will lose deductions otherwise available to almost every other US business. Clearly, IRC §280E puts these businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The disadvantage can be so severe as to be fatal in certain cases.

It’s important to note that although IRC 280E disallows expenses and credits paid for trade or businesses engaged in trafficking of marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, this onerous code section does not apply to cost of goods sold. As such, a grower, farmer, cultivator, processor, or a manufacturer of hemp products may deduct any costs that are properly included in cost of goods sold. This rule is noncontroversial: In 2015, the IRS Chief Counsel issued a memorandum that clarified that a cannabis business may deduct these costs under IRC §471 and related regulations. Specifically, under IRC §471, costs included in cost of goods sold are those costs incident and necessary to production including:

  • Direct material costs;
  • Direct labor costs;
  • Utilities;
  • Maintenance;
  • Rent (real estate and equipment); and
  • Quality control.

Depending on your treatment for financial statement purposes, the following indirect costs may be included in cost of goods sold including:

  • Taxes necessary for production;
  • Depreciation;
  • Employee Benefits;
  • Factory administrative costs; and
  • Insurance.

On the other hand, a non-Farm Bill compliant hemp producer will lose under IRC §280E deductions related to sales, marketing and non-production related management costs.

In addition to creating headaches for non-Farm Bill compliant growers, the application of IRC §280E will have a detrimental impact on wholesalers and retailers of CBD products who also are not operating in full compliance with the Farm Bill. For these businesses, IRC §280E would operate to disallow a deduction for most overhead costs. This could have an especially severe impact on mixed retail businesses that sell CBD products in conjunction with other products.

Example: A pharmacy that sells products containing non-Farm Bill CBD as well as more traditional health products (e.g., shaving cream) may now be subject to IRC §280E. Unless the sale of non-CBD products can be considered a separate trade or business, it is possible that IRC §280E would operate to disallow the deduction of all operating expenses.

Finally, it is unclear if the IRS will apply IRC §280E retroactively to non-Farm Bill hemp businesses. The IRS could apply IRC §280E retroactively on audit or to years otherwise open. For example, the IRS could go back to tax year 2014 and adjust the income tax returns of certain taxpayers engaged in hemp manufacturing and sales of hemp products.

Under the new tax law effective January 1, 2018, Congress gave U.S. business several targeted tax benefits. For many businesses in the developing industrial hemp sector, the impact of IRC §280E reverses many of the benefits of the new tax law. Perhaps Congress can address some of these issues by passing the expansive Hemp Farming Act of 2018 which, as currently written, would explicitly remove Industrial Hemp and derivatives of that cannabis cultivar from the Controlled Substances Act. Better yet: repeal IRC §280E.

The tax outlook for California canna manufacturers isn’t all bad.

We previously identified a number of sales tax exemptions available to California cannabis cultivators. Fortunately, the state legislature is looking out for other businesses up and down the supply chain, such that cultivators are not the only class of licensee eligible for sales tax exemptions. This post will focus on a partial tax exemption available to manufacturers and other cannabis businesses engaged in certain research and development. It’s an important exemption to understand.

First, the tax exemption is not so much an exemption as a reduction of the state sales tax rate.  For example, an Oakland manufacture’s purchase of $100,000 of qualified equipment ordinarily pays state and district sales tax at a rate of 9.25%. The 9.25% rate includes a state rate of 7.25% and a district rate of 2.0%. In this example, the sales tax due is $9,250. With the partial exemption, the state sales tax rate is reduced from 7.25% to 3.3125%. Accordingly, the sales tax due is $5,312 [$100,000*(3.3125%+2.00%)] resulting in a total tax savings of almost $4,000.

A manufacturer must satisfy three key requirements to qualify for the credit:

  • The manufacturer must be a “qualified person”;
  • The manufacturer must purchase “qualified equipment”; and
  • The equipment must be used in a “qualified manner”.

Note that the partial exemption applies to qualified equipment that is leased as well as purchased. The requirements are very specific and somewhat technical. What follows are the key points to consider when purchasing equipment.

Qualified Person

A qualified person is a business that engages more than 50% of the time in a business activity described in the North American Industry Classification System (NSICS) under manufacturing codes 3111-3399 or codes related to research and development, revised codes 541713 or 541715. The NSICS code is a standard used by the federal government to classify businesses.  It is no surprise that NSICS codes have not been created for the cannabis industry. However, it appears that all cannabis manufactures should qualify for Miscellaneous Manufacturing, Code 339999. Accordingly, all cannabis manufactures and processors should be considered qualified persons for purposes of the credit.

Determining what research and development businesses qualify is more difficult. The research and development class is narrowly defined.  However, the CDTFA website suggests (without providing much detail) that certain product development and process improvement activities may qualify for the partial exemption. It is fair to say that any cannabis company operating a testing or genetics lab should look at this credit closely.

Qualified Equipment

A wide variety of tangible property (i.e., equipment) qualifies for the partial exemption. First, the manufacturing process is broadly defined and includes tangible personal property involved in:

“manufacturing, processing, refining, fabricating, or recycling of tangible personal property, beginning at the point any raw materials are received by the qualified person and introduced into the process and ending at the point at which the manufacturing, processing, refining, fabricating, or recycling has altered tangible personal property to its completed form, including packaging, if required.”

Qualified Equipment includes:

  • Packaging equipment “necessary to prepare goods so that they are suitable for delivery to and placement in finished goods inventory, including repackaging to meet the needs of a specific customer.” This definition is expansive and should include equipment that trims, packs, and seals cannabis products for sale in compliance with MAUCRSA:
  • Pollution control equipment;
  • Quality control equipment;
  • Component parts such as belts, shafts and moving parts;
  • Equipment used to operate, control, regulate or maintain the machinery including:
    • Computers;
    • Software;
    • Repair and replacement parts (with a useful life of more than one year);
  • Special purpose buildings used in manufacturing or that constitute a research facility;

The following equipment generally does not qualify for the partial exemption:

  • Consumables with a useful life of less than one year;
  • Furniture;
  • Equipment used to store finished products (e.g., shelving); and
  • Equipment and property used in administration, management, or marketing.

Qualified Use

To meet this requirement, the tangible property must be used more than 50% of the time in:

  • Any stage of the manufacturing process;
  • Research and Development;
  • Maintenance, repair, or quality control activity related to qualified equipment.


Generally, a seller of manufacturing and research and development equipment is required to collect sales tax from the buyer at the time of sale. However, a seller is not required to collect the full amount of sales tax if they receive from the buyer a partial exemption certificate, Form CDTFA 230-M.

The exemption certificate is proof that the seller properly collected a reduced amount of sales tax and protects the seller. The CDTFA can not collect the full amount of sales tax from the seller on audit provided that the seller accepts the exemption certificate in good faith. The good faith standard is reasonable easy to satisfy. However, the seller should look out for buyers tendering certificates for purchases of products that obviously do not qualify, such as consumables or office equipment.

If California sales tax is not collected by the seller, a California purchaser of manufacturing equipment is required to pay use tax. For example, the Arizona manufacturer of a dryer may not be required to collect California sales tax if the equipment is shipped from Arizona to a California cannabis business. In this situation, the California cannabis business is required to self-assess use tax on its purchases. Provided that the equipment meets the qualifications discussed above, the purchaser may claim an exemption on their use tax return filed with CDTFA.

California cannabis businesses operate in a very challenging tax environment. All marijuana businesses should be aware of the type of tax exemption available; aggressively pursue all that they qualify for; and, properly document all exemptions they claim. For large capital expenditures, a cannabis business should consider requesting from the CDTFA written confirmation that the planned expenditure qualifies for exemption. A cannabis business that discloses its name and accurately describes the facts of the transaction, may rely on the CDTFA’s determination.

california marijuana tax
Returns are due next month. Time to hustle.

In California, the first Cannabis Tax Return is due on April 30, 2018 and many of our clients are now working through the issues related to the Cannabis Cultivation and Excise Tax. In addition, many marijuana businesses must file their first 2018 estimated federal tax payment by April 17, 2018. To estimate taxable income, every Cannabis business must understand how to treat the Cannabis Cultivation Tax and the Cannabis Excise Tax on their federal income tax return. Are California Cannabis Taxes an expense of a cannabis business? If so, are cannabis taxes deductible for federal income tax purposes?

We have discussed the mechanics of IRC §280E here and here. IRC §280E disallows deductions for cannabis cultivators, manufactures, distributors and retailers. However, expenses included in cost of goods sold (“COGS”) reduce taxable income and operates outside the reach of IRC §280E. Generally speaking, IRC §280E is less damaging to cultivators than retailers, because cultivators can attribute more business expenses to COGS.

Cultivation Tax
California imposes a cultivation tax on harvested cannabis that enters the commercial market. The tax is:

• $9.25 per dry-weight ounce of cannabis flower;
• $2.75 per dry-weight ounce of cannabis leaves; and
• $1.29 per dry-weight ounce of fresh plant.

The tax is imposed on the Cultivator alone; under state rules, cannabis cannot be sold unless the tax is paid.

IRS regulations (Treas. Reg. §1.471-11) provide Cultivators and Manufactures with a helpful roadmap regarding what costs are appropriate to include in COGS. Taxes can be included in COGS if they are otherwise allowed as a deduction under IRC §164. Under IRC §164, state taxes are deductible if they are “paid or accrued … carrying on a trade or business”. In addition, the state taxes may be included in COGS if they are “attributable to assets incident to and necessary for production or manufacturing operations or processes”. For example, property taxes are included in COGS. Finally, the regulations look to whether a tax is included in COGS in the business’s financial statements.

Cultivation taxes are paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business. The cannabis plant is an asset of the business (i.e., raw material) that is the core ingredient in all cannabis products grown or processed. Clearly cannabis is the raw material incident and necessary to production; cannabis may not be sold under California law unless the Cultivation Tax is paid. Finally, the tax is imposed based on a characteristic of a business asset (i.e., weight of raw material), like a property tax.  Accordingly, there is a reasonable argument that IRS regulations require that the California Cultivation Tax be included in COGS of a Cultivator.

Excise Tax
California imposes a 15% Cannabis Excise Tax on the purchases of cannabis or cannabis product sold. Generally, the tax is imposed on the average market price. The average market price is the Distributor’s wholesale cost plus a mark-up determined by the CDTFA. Currently the mark-up is 60%. For example, a retailer’s cost of an ounce of cannabis is $75/ounce plus $5 of transportation cost. The mark-up is $48($80 *60%). The average market price is $128 ($80 +$48); the Cannabis Excise tax is $19.20 ($128*15%). The Retailer’s COGS includes the $80 cost. The Retailer will charge the consumer tax of $19.20. Note that for cannabis retailers, COGS is generally limited to the direct purchase cost of cannabis.

So, the big question here is: Should the $19.20 of Cannabis Excise tax be included in the Retailers COGS? By statute, the cannabis excise tax “shall be imposed upon purchases of cannabis”. The Retailer collects the tax from the consumer and pays the tax over to a California Distributor. As the tax is the ultimate liability of the cannabis purchaser, the statutes suggest that the cannabis tax collected is not a cost to the Retailer. Like state sales taxes, the Cannabis Excise Tax is a liability to the Distributor. As such the Cannabis Excise Tax is reflected on the Retailer’s balance sheet and not as an expense on the income statement. The Cannabis Excise Tax probably escapes the reach of IRC §280E.

Although California cannabis taxes do not conflict with IRC §280E, all cannabis businesses should consult with their tax advisors before taking a final approach. For Cultivators and Manufactures, there is a reasonable argument that the Cultivation Tax is included in COGS. For Retailers, there is a reasonable argument that the Cannabis Excise Tax is passed directly to the consumer and, therefore, outside the reach of IRC §280E. At the very least, that may be a good place to start the discussion.

audit marijuana cannabis
Can your cannabis business survive state scrutiny?

Like all business, cannabis businesses are subject to audit by state taxing authorities and other agencies. These audits tend to proceed differently with cannabis business, though, given the unique regulatory approach states take with marijuana. If a regulatory audit turns up issues, then fines and even loss of your business’s license could follow. This post outlines the top issues in preparing for, and managing, a regulatory audit of your cannabis business.

Plan Ahead

Every state with a regulated cannabis market has specific record keeping requirements.  Prepare for future audits by keeping meticulous records. Like other businesses, a marijuana business must keep detailed records regarding all aspects of the business including: sales, inventory management, purchases, taxes, employment, environmental compliance, legal and transportation. Unlike other businesses, a cannabis business is required to keep all source documentation. For example, purchases of goods and services must not only be supported by master goods and service contracts, but transaction level invoices; bank statements must include check and deposit slip detail.  When in doubt, keep as much detail as possible.

As stated HERE and HERE, it is wise to conduct periodic self-audits to identify any weakness in record keeping or any other compliance issues. Self-audits allow a cannabis business to address issues as early as possible. Self-audits also assist a business is constantly improving not only its regulatory compliance but improving customer service and profitability.

Each state differs in how long records must be maintained. Washington requires that records be archived for three years while California requires records be archived for seven years.  However long a state requires a cannabis business to archive records, it is a best practice to archive records in electronic format where possible, alongside retention of hard copy data.

Don’t Panic

Cannabis regulators will notify you by letter that your cannabis business is under audit. Included with that letter will be a list of records to provide. All states with regulated cannabis markets have wide latitude to inspect records and your physical business location. For example, Washington regulations require a cannabis business to archive a wide variety of documents and mandate that such records “must be made available for inspection if requested by an employee of the WSLCB.” In general, a cannabis business will have no standing to challenge a cannabis regulatory agency right to demand and to inspect records. Your time and money will be best spent gathering the records requested.

Typically, records must be produced in a very short time frame, so a cannabis business should immediately begin to gather the documents requested. Typically, information must be requested from CPA’s bookkeepers and attorneys, so give your business as much time as possible to get this information.

Disclosure and Truthfulness

Most states have strict sanctions for a cannabis business that fails to provide documents to the regulators. For example, a determination of a failure to provide documents in the State of Washington will result in the cancellation of a license. As expected, most states have strict sanctions for misrepresentations of fact to cannabis regulators. Again, a determination that a cannabis business has misrepresented facts will result in the cancellation of a license. A cannabis business must be aware that every document provided and statement made to the regulators is “on-the-record”. A cannabis business should never speculate or guess in responding to inquiries made by the regulators.

Understand the Appeal Process and Your Rights

Although your cannabis business has an affirmative duty to provide accurate information to the regulators, you do have legal rights and protections.

If the enforcement officer identifies a potential violation, the enforcement officer must follow a specific notice procedure. In Washington, the enforcement officer must issue an Administrative Violation Notice (AVN) and deliver the notice to the cannabis business, or the businesses agent or employee.

The AVN must include:

  • A narrative description of alleged violations;
  • The dates of violations;
  • A copy of the relevant statutes or regulations;
  • An outline of the licensee’s options;
  • Identify the recommended penalty; and
  • Identify any aggravating or mitigating circumstances adjusting the penalty.

Requesting a Stay

If the regulators suspend a license, the licensee must promptly initiate an adjudicative proceeding before an Administrative Law Judge assigned by the Washington office of Administrative Hearings. A hearing must be held within 90 days of the date of suspension.

In Washington, a cannabis business must petition for a stay of suspension within 15 days of service of the suspension order.  A hearing must be conducted within 14 days from receipt of the filing of the petition for stay.

Other Remedies

A Washington cannabis business has 20 days from receipt of the AVN to:

  • Accept the recommended penalty; or,
  • Request a settlement conference; or,
  • Request an administrative hearing;

Missing this key 20-day period will result in a range of sanctions from penalties to revocation of the cannabis business license.

One of the key tactical decisions is whether to request a settlement conference or to move directly to requesting an administrative hearing. Although a settlement conference offers an opportunity to resolve issues in a more informal manner, there may be instances where moving directly to an administrative hearing is wise. This tactical decision should be considered carefully in consultation with counsel, and is highly dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case.


Although a regulatory audit is intimidating, your cannabis business can best prepare for such an audit by aggressively implementing best practices, performing internal compliance audits, and keeping meticulous records. Remember, states that have legalized adult cannabis use, such as Washington, are under scrutiny by the federal government. Increased federal scrutiny puts pressure on states to enforce their local cannabis laws, and a key part of such enforcement is through regulatory audits. For all of these reasons, your cannabis business would be wise to plan for an audit by state regulators.

Just check the box!

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act took effect January 1, 2018. This Act made dramatic changes to prior federal tax law. The most significant changes were: 1) the reduction of the corporate tax rate, and 2) a new 20% deduction for individuals and other non-corporate taxpayers operating a business. We outlined the income tax consequences of operating as C corporation versus operating as a partnership here and here. All cannabis businesses should review the tax consequences of being classified as a C corporation versus a partnership and consider changing how their cannabis business is taxed by making an “Entity Classification Election.” This post outlines some of the opportunities and pitfalls in making this election.

The New Landscape on Choice of Entity

The Act lowered the corporate tax rate to 21%. However, a corporation and its shareholders are still subject to double taxation.  Dividends paid are taxable and the highest marginal rate on dividend income is 23.8% (capital gain rate of 20% plus net investment income tax rate of 3.8%). Accordingly, the top rate for operating via a corporate form is 44.8%.

By contrast, the marginal tax rate for a partner in a cannabis-related business can be as high as 45.1%. Though the new law allows partners to deduct up to 20% of income from operations, it is unclear if a partner of a cannabis business is allowed this deduction, per I.R.C. 280E. Furthermore, the self-employment tax computation is capped each year.

The Need for Analysis

Merely comparing the highest marginal rates between a corporation and a partnership indicates it is slightly better to operate as a C corporation (a 44.8% rate versus a 45.1% rate). However, a raw comparison of rates is usually only the first chapter of the story. Under the new law, other factors can be important, such as the individual tax bracket of each owner and whether cash distributions are planned. A business may or may not qualify for the favourable 20% deduction and this further complicates the analysis. For these reasons, you should be sure to run all of the relevant numbers before choosing to file as a C corporation.

Electing to be a C Corporation

If, after running the appropriate analysis, you determine that being taxed as a C corporation is best, your next step should be to file Form 8832, an Entity Classification Election (“C Election”).  The following entities may elect to be taxed as a C corporation:

Filing a C election for tax purposes has no impact on how your entity operates under state law. Though it is recommended to amend your company’s operating agreement to reflect the C election, the governance, management and sale provisions of the company will not materially change.

When to Make the Election

A C Election may apply prospectively or retroactively. The easiest approach is to elect on a prospective basis. An LLC that has been taxed in prior years as a partnership can also make a C election for the current tax year. For example, an LLC that wants to be treated as a C corporation for 2018, should make that election by March 15, 2018.

If you miss the opportunity to file a prospective election, you still may make a retroactive election under very specific circumstances. A business that wants to be treated as a C corporation must file a request for late election relief no later than 3 years and 75 days from the effective date of the election. For example, an LLC that wants to be taxed as a C corporation beginning on January 1, 2016, must file a request for late election relief on or before March 15, 2019. The most common situation is to make a C election on or before the due date of your tax return.

For example, a business currently categorized as a partnership that wants to elect to be treated as a C corporation for 2018, can file an election on March 15, 2019. The election must meet all of the following criteria for late election relief:

  • The entity failed to file Form 8832;
  • The entity has not yet filed the tax return for the desired election year;
  • The entity has acted as a C Corporation;
  • The entity has reasonable cause for failing to file Form 8832.

Though the IRS is not required to grant late election relief to a taxpayer, the IRS has traditionally been very fair in granting relief and most taxpayers will meet this criterion. Once a business elects C corporation status, it must for the next five years continue to file as a C corporation. Finally, a business must examine how a C election will be treated for state income tax purposes. Some states may require an independent election to be treated as a C corporation, for example.

The new tax law presents opportunities for businesses to reduce their federal income tax liability. All marijuana business should examine their current tax filing profile and act as quickly as possible to take advantage of the lower tax rates imposed on C corporations.

california tax marijuana
Your standard CDTFA qualified cannabis tractor.

California cannabis businesses are now acquiring temporary permits to enter the new cannabis marketplace made possible under MAURSCA. As part of that process, all cannabis businesses have been introduced to the California Department of Fee and Tax Administration (“CDTFA”), the agency tasked with administering the new cannabis cultivation taxes and sales tax.

The CDTFA administers sales tax exemptions on purchases of certain farm equipment and agriculture products. These exemptions are available to cultivators, processors and manufacturers. California sales tax rates are high – ranging from 7.25% to 10.25% of the sales price. Sales tax savings go directly to the bottom-line and a business could save up to $1,025 on every $10,000 invested in eligible supplies and equipment.

This post provides a quick outline of California sales tax exemptions available to cultivators. A second post will cover licensed processors and manufactures.

Seeds and Plants

The sale of seeds and plants are exempt from sales tax so long as the purchaser uses those seeds and plants to create products sold in the regular course of business. Plants include “cuttings of every variety”. Consequently, a cultivator should be able to purchase clones and plants exempt from sales tax. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give a seller an exemption certificate.


The sale of certain fertilizers is exempt from sales tax so long as the fertilizer is applied to land or in “foliar application” where the products of such plants (i.e., cannabis) are sold in the regular course of business. Only very specific types of fertilizers and nutrients qualify and the definitions are highly technical. For example, “commercial fertilizer”  and “agricultural minerals” qualify. These substances generally contain combinations of nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash under 5%. On the other hand, “packaged soil amendments” (i.e., hay, straw, peat moss) do not qualify. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give a seller an exemption certificate.

Farm Equipment and Machinery

As a rule, the sale of farm equipment and machinery is taxable. However, the purchase of certain farm equipment and machinery is partially exempt from sales tax. The partial exemption is currently 5% of the sales price. For example, the sales tax rate on the purchase of eligible equipment in Arcata is 3.5% (8.5%-5.0%); resulting in a $500 savings on the purchase of $10,000 worth of equipment.

Three requirements must be met to take the credit. The first and most problematic requirement, is that the purchaser’s business must fall within specific federal SIC codes.  SIC codes are created by the federal government to track statistical information on U.S. businesses. Because cannabis is illegal under federal law, no specific SIC code is currently available for the sale of consumable cannabis. Nonetheless, a cultivator may argue that their business operation meets this requirement because it is included in the general farm category of SIC 0191.

The second requirement is that the equipment should be used at least 50% or more in harvesting agricultural product. The third, requirement is that the equipment should be farm equipment and machinery as defined under regulations. The regulations broadly define farm equipment and machinery. The CDTFA has identified the following equipment as qualifying for the exemption:

  • Planting equipment;
  • Trimming Tools;
  • Drying racks and trays;
  • Grow tents and lights;
  • Environmental controls;
  • Hydroponic equipment;
  • Irrigation equipment;
  • Hand tools;
  • Repair and replacement parts;
  • Wind machines.

Vehicles that are designed to be used exclusively on roads and highways, such as pick-up trucks, do not qualify. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give a seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA-230-D.

Buildings for Raising Plants

Certain buildings are considered farm equipment for purposes of the farm equipment and machinery exemption discussed above. Generally, they must be single purpose structures and do not include structures used for storage or administrative purposes.  The buildings must:

  • Be specifically designed for commercially raising plants;
  • Used exclusively for that purpose.

For example, a greenhouse would generally qualify. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA 230-D.

Solar Power Facilities

A business that otherwise qualifies for the farm equipment partial exemption, may purchase certain solar equipment at the reduced sales tax rate.

In general, solar power equipment used at least 50% in the production of cannabis would qualify for the farm equipment and machinery partial exemption. Solar power equipment may qualify even if the equipment is tied to the local power grid.

For example, a solar facility producing a total 1000 kw of electricity per year would qualify so long as at least 500 kw per year was used to power the cultivator’s farm equipment and machinery. Note that in this example, the cultivator could sell on the open market the excess 500kw of electricity. Potentially, the cultivator can deduct on its federal income tax return all expenses related to this separate power distribution business.

Diesel Fuel Used in Farming

The purchase of diesel fuel is generally subject to sales tax; however, a partial exemption from sales tax of 5.0% applies to the purchases of diesel fuel used in farming activity or in transporting product to a manufacturer or a distributor. The computation for this sales tax exemption is the same as for the exemption for farm machinery and equipment. To obtain the partial exemption, a cultivator must present to the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA-230-G.

Furthermore, California imposes a $0.36 per gallon excise tax the sale of diesel fuel. However, a cultivator may purchase diesel fuel used to power farm equipment exempt from the diesel fuel excise tax. To obtain the exemption, a cultivator must present to the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA-608 REV.

Liquid Propane Gas Used in Farming

Sales of liquid propane gas used to operate machinery used in farming or harvesting are fully exempt from sales tax. To obtain the full exemption, a cultivator must present to the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA 230-N REV.


As cultivators make capital investments in their cannabis operations, they have an opportunity reduce the amount of sales tax they pay on their purchase of certain consumables and high-ticket items. These exemptions provide bottom-line savings; however, the CDTFA strictly enforces compliance in this area. Accordingly, cultivators should keep meticulous books and records and ensure that they issue completed exemption certificates on these purchases, and check in with a qualified CPA or tax lawyer with any questions.

Unfortunately, IRC 280E is not included.

On December 22, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (“The Act”) otherwise known as PL-115-97,
was signed into law. The Act is the most significant overhaul of the U.S. Tax Code since 1986 and is effective beginning in 2018. Accordingly, cannabis businesses need to understand now how the new tax law affects their business. Below are the most significant issues impacting a cannabis business, as well as, some ancillary cannabis business.

  1. The Act did not repeal IRC 280E.

The number one tax issue in the cannabis business is the impact of IRC 280E. We have discussed how IRC 280E impacts the industry many times, including here, here, here, and here. Prior to the enactment of the new tax law, GOP political advocates such as Grover Norquist called for the repeal of IRC 280E, much to the delight of the cannabis industry. However, IRC 280E was not repealed. One prevailing reason for this was that a repeal did not fit into Congress’ budget: repeal would have been budgeted as a tax cut, which would have forced Congress to replace that lost revenue. So, IRC 280E lives on (at least for now).

One bright spot is that cannabis business will pay less federal income tax beginning in 2018. The decrease in tax rates mitigates the impact of IRC 280E.

  1. The Act makes the C Corporation more attractive.

The centerpiece of GOP tax reform is the reduction of tax rates. As we have written before, in determining the legal structure for your cannabis business, one choice is the C Corporation.

C Corporations pay tax at the corporate level. Individual shareholders are then taxed on dividends at a rate as high as 20%. In the past, this “double taxation” has discouraged the use of C corporations. The Act mitigates the problem of double taxation by reducing the C Corporate tax rate to 21%. The tax rate on dividends does not change under the new law.

Besides this new reduction in tax rates, C corporations offer other benefits such as audit protection for shareholders and greater flexibility in offering employee benefits. Based on these significant changes, every cannabis businesses should review their current operating structure and consider operating as a C corporation.

  1. The Act makes some Limited Liability Company & “Pass-Through” entities less attractive.

The most common entity choice for those starting a business, cannabis or otherwise, is the limited liability company. We have outlined some of the advantages  and disadvantages of operating as a limited liability company in the taxation context.

A limited liability company may take on many forms for tax purposes but the common characteristic is that income “passes through” to the owners. Income that passes through to individual members or owners is taxed at the individual tax rate. Under the new law, some owners of pass-through entities will enjoy a deduction of 20% of business income.

  • For example, assume a single individual (in the 24% tax bracket) earns net income from an ancillary cannabis business that she operates as a sole member of a limited liability company. If the limited liability company’s business income is $100,000, her federal income tax from that business is $19,200 [($100,000 -$20,000) * 24%].

Now, the exceptions. First, Congress framed the pass-through benefit in the Internal Revenue Code as a deduction; IRC 280E will disallow this deduction for all cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, distributors and retailers. In the example above, a cannabis business would pay tax on $100,000 of income. As such, federal tax law continues to punish a cannabis business.

Second, while some ancillary cannabis businesses may benefit from the 20% deduction, other owners of pass-through entities will have their 20% deduction reduced or even disallowed under a maze of complex and interrelated exceptions.

Overall these exceptions operate to favor business that make substantial capital investments (including real estate) over businesses that provide services, or are labor intensive.  For example, most service businesses–including those in health care and consulting–expressly do not qualify for the deduction unless their overall taxable income (after several adjustments) is below $157,500 (or $315,000 for those filing a joint tax return). On the other hand, an ancillary cannabis business such as a lessor of real estate (without significant payroll costs) will likely benefit from continuing to operate as a limited liability company.

  1. The Act limits tax deductions for some debt financing.

Instead of making an equity investment in a cannabis business, investors often choose to be a lender. Under IRC Section 280E, it is difficult for a cannabis business to deduct interest expense.  Under the old law, ancillary businesses can deduct all business interest.

The Act has put significant limitations on deducting interest. Under the Act, the amount of interest expense allowed to be deducted cannot be greater than the sum of:

  • Interest income;
  • 30% of “Adjusted Taxable Income”; and,
  • Interest expense from certain “floor plan” financing.

Adjusted Taxable Income is generally taxable net income with adjustments for: interest income and expense; losses; and certain capital investments. Although included in the computation, floor plan financing should not be an issue with most ancillary cannabis businesses.

  • For example, an ancillary business receives a loan and pays $5,000 of interest per year.  A business with Adjusted Taxable Income of $18,000 can deduct all its interest expense ($18,000*30%=$5,400); a business with Adjusted Taxable Income of $15,000 may only deduct $4,500 ($15,000 * 30%) of interest expense.

There are two major exceptions. The first exception allows certain real estate business to elect to deduct interest expense in exchange for using a less favorable depreciation method. The second exceptions allow a business with annual gross receipts of less than $25 million (averaged over a three-year period) to deduct all its interest expense.

Finally, all taxpayers can apply any disallowed interest expense to future years.

Because the new tax law applies to the 2018 tax year, the IRS will be scrambling to provide additional guidance to businesses and their tax advisors. The IRS will almost certainly issue additional regulations, and other formal guidance throughout 2018. In addition, it is very likely that Congress will take up a Technical Corrections Bill in 2018 to fine-tune the Act.  We can only hope that such fine-tuning includes the repeal of IRC 280E.

California's Cannabis Excise Tax
California’s Cannabis Excise Tax

The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (“CDTFA”) last week adopted Emergency Regulation 3701, Collection and Remittance of the Cannabis Excise Tax, clarifying that California’s Cannabis Excise Tax applies to sales of cannabis acquired before January 1, 2018, but sold to customers on or after January 1, 2018. These regulations are in addition to Emergency Regulation 3700, Cannabis Excise and Cultivation Taxes issued in late November.

Emergency Regulation 3701 was issued to close a perceived loophole in California’s Cannabis Excise Tax. Cannabis distributors and retailers have no room for error under Emergency Regulation 3701 and this blog post explains its requirements.

California’s Cannabis Excise Tax – The General Rules

Under MAUCRSA, cannabis retailers must collect the excise tax from their customers on every cannabis sale made on or after January 1, 2018. The excise tax is 15% of the Average Market Price. In turn, retailers must pay their distributors the excise taxes collected from their retail customers because distributors are ultimately responsible for remitting the excise taxes to the CDTFA.

Under MAUCRSA, no person is required to be a licensed distributor until January 1, 2018. The CDTFA recognized that on January 1, 2018, newly-licensed retailers will have cannabis inventory purchased before January 1, 2018, and such “pre-MAUCRSA Cannabis” not purchased from a licensed distributor. Emergency Regulation 3701 outlines the process for collecting and paying the excise tax on pre-MAUCRSA cannabis sales

So suppose Retailer A purchases pre-MAUCRSA Cannabis in 2017 and on January 2, 2018, purchases cannabis from Distributor Z for $100/ounce. The wholesale cost of cannabis to Distributor Z is $100 an ounce. The Average Market Price of an ounce is $160.00 ($100 x 1.6). The Cannabis Excise Tax due on the sale of the pre-MAUCRSA Cannabis is $24.00 ($160 x 15%) and Retailer A must collect this excise tax from its own customer.

Requirements of Emergency Regulation 3701 – Distributors

The distributor must, in turn, remit the excise tax to the CDTFA. The retailer must pay excise taxes collected from its customers to a distributor by the 15th of the month following the retail sale.  Distributors must report and remit the tax to the CDTFA on that transaction as part of its ordinary compliance process and provide the cannabis retailer a receipt that provides the following:

  • Payment date
  • Distributor name;
  • Retailer name
  • Amount of the Cannabis Excise Tax;
  • Retailer’s Seller Permit Number;
  • Distributor’s Seller Permit Number. A Distributor not required to hold a Seller’s Permit must identify its exempt status.

So suppose Retailer A sells pre-MAUCRSA Cannabis on January 25, 2018. The excise tax collected from the customer is $24.00. Retailer A must pay the cannabis tax collected to Distributor Z by February 15, 2018. Distributor Z must report this transaction on its first-quarter Cannabis Tax Return for 2018 and pay the tax to the CDTFA by April 30, 2018, the due date of its first-quarter tax return.

Emergency Regulation 3701 — Open Issues

Emergency Regulation 3701 raises a number of questions, including the following:

  • May a cannabis retailer choose one distributor to set the Average Market Price, but pay the excise tax to another distributor? In Example 2, Retailer A pays Distributor Z. Could Retailer A pay Distributor Q so long as it transacts business with Distributor Q?
  • Can a cannabis retailer sell pre-MAUCRSA Cannabis before purchasing cannabis from a newly-licensed Distributor? It appears not, as at least one transaction must be completed with a distributor to set the Average Market Price.
  • How are the emergency regulations implemented if the distributor is part of a Microbusiness?

These and other issues will presumably eventually be addressed in CDTFA’s Cannabis Tax GuideIn the meantime though, Retailers must be aware that every sale under MAUCRSA is subject to California’s Cannabis Excise tax regardless of the date the cannabis was placed into inventory. Retailers that fail to comply with Emergency Regulation 3701 are subject to penalties, including the possibility of losing their California Retailer license.

Speaking of MAUCRSA, four of my firm’s California cannabis lawyers will be putting on a FREE webinar on MAUCRSA tomorrow (December 18), entitled, What You Need to Know Now to Get Your California Cannabis License on January 1. This event will feature two of our Los Angeles-based cannabis attorneys, Hilary Bricken and Julie Hamill, and two of our San Francisco-based cannabis attorneys, Alison Malsbury and Habib Bentaleb. It will give an overview of the recently issued emergency MAUCRSA rules governing medicinal and adult use cannabis licensing and operations in California and cover the licensing process for each license type, operational standards for all license types (including renewable energy requirements for cultivators), the 6-month “transitional” period for product and operations, major changes between the MCRSA and MAUCRSA rules, and key unknowns posed by the rules. You can register for this free webinar by going here.