In the latest Tax Court opinion addressing the application of Section 280E to cannabis businesses there is no good news.  However, there is some new guidance.  In Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp. v. Comm’r, 151 T.C. No. 11, the taxpayer made a litany of arguments to convince the court that their business, or a portion of their business was not subject to Section 280E.  These include arguments we have seen before, including (1) that the business was not trafficking in controlled substances, here, because the government had abandoned a civil forfeiture action, and (2) that because a portion of the business involved branding and the sales of non-marijuana products, deductions related to these operations should not be subject to Section 280E.  These arguments failed and only make it clear that similar arguments are likely to be unavailing.  In fact, the Court spends ten pages discussing why the entire business is integrated and subject to Section 280E.  Taxpayers hoping to establish a separate trade or business that is not subject to Section 280E now have clarity, but also an extremely high bar.

New Holdings:  Inventory Accounting Rules

The new developments addressed in this case involve the application of inventory rules to cannabis businesses.  Previous cases focused primarily on the previously discussed arguments and failed to give any detailed guidance on how to apply the inventory rules.  The Court clearly and strongly concluded that the more expansive Section 263A  inventory cost rules do not apply to businesses subject to Section 280E.  The Court reasoned that “if something wasn’t deductible before Congress enacted section 263A, taxpayers cannot use that section to capitalize it..Section 263A makes taxpayers defer the benefit of what used to be deductions-it doesn’t shower that as grace on those previously damned.”  Slip Op. at 53.

The Court’s conclusion is based on the notion that we go back in time to 1982 to determine what is includible in inventory costs.  The Court refers to Treas. Reg. section 1.263A-1(c)(2) which states:

Any cost which (but for section 263A and the regulations thereunder) may not be taken into account in computing taxable income for any taxable year is not treated as a cost properly allocable to property produced or acquired for resale under section 263A and the regulations thereunder. Thus, for example, if a business meal deduction is limited by section 274(n) to 80 percent of the cost of the meal, the amount properly allocable to property produced or acquired for resale under section 263A is also limited to 80 percent of the cost of the meal.

While this reasoning is understandable, if we turn the question on its head, we could also ask whether the section 280E disallowance is determined before or after inventory costs are calculated.  For example, even if there is a meals and entertainment expense that is clearly includible in inventory costs, no one is going to argue that 100% of meals and entertainment is includible in inventory costs.  In this case, you are determining inventory costs and deductions, and then applying Section 274.   So, it is easy to see how those provisions overlap.  However, if inventory costs are determined based on the applicable inventory rules and then Section 280E is applied, then you have a different result because Section 263A expands what can be included in inventory costs, and the remaining deductions are subject to Section 280E.  That result is not inconsistent with the notion that items such as meals and entertainment and penalties are not deducted in determining taxable income regardless of whether they are a deduction under Section 162 or an inventory cost under Section 471 or 263A.

The Harsh Result

It is important to note that the Court analyzed and concluded that the taxpayer was a reseller and not a producer.  Because the taxpayer did not itself grow marijuana, this is not surprising.  The Section 471 rules that apply to resellers do not allow for extensive indirect costs to be included in inventory.  Thus, for businesses that do not produce or manufacture, they will continue to face significant challenges by the IRS if they are including indirect costs in inventory costs.  For cultivators and producers, careful consideration should be given to how the 471 rules apply, depending on the activities of the business.

Still to Come

The Court reserved its analysis of whether penalties apply for a opinion to be issued at a later date.  However, the Court hints that there might be some relief when it states that the overlap between Section 280E and 263A created a “confusing legal environment.”  One can hope that given the lack of guidance addressing the specifics of how the inventory rules apply to cannabis businesses, the IRS and the court will give taxpayers  doing their best to apply Section 280E the benefit of reprieve from penalties.

Other Notes

If you are entertained by Judge Holmes’ opinions, be sure you read the footnotes.  Footnotes 3 and 6 are my favorites.

Recently, a Colorado business protested the IRS’ disallowance of their business expenses.  The IRS alleges that the taxpayer was a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary to which Section 280E applies, as a result the IRS asserted that the taxpayers owed additional tax.  The taxpayers paid the tax and sued for a refund in Federal Court.  In a motion for summary judgment, the taxpayer asserted that the IRS did not have the authority to investigate whether the taxpayer violated the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), that Section 280E violates the Sixteenth Amendment, that the taxpayer properly deducted its expenses, and that the IRS did not produce evidence that Section 280E applies to the taxpayer.  The taxpayer also asserted that the application of Section 280E violated their Fifth Amendment rights and that Section 280E violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines and penalties.

The District Court ruled that:

  • the IRS application of Section 280E to a business it determined was selling marijuana was within its authority to apply the Internal Revenue Code;
  • the IRS’ application of Section 280E was a “purely tax-based determination” that did not violate the taxpayer’s Fifth Amendment rights;
  • the taxpayer did not allege that the IRS disallowed costs other than cost of goods sold and therefore the court could not determine that the Sixteenth Amendment was not violated;
  • the taxpayer did not allege enough facts for the court to determine whether Section 280E is an excessive fine and penalty in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and
  • the taxpayer did not allege any facts to show that the IRS lacked evidence to show that the taxpayer was violating the CSA.

The taxpayer has filed a motion for reconsideration and an amended complaint to add allegations necessary to support its claims, so the case may move forward based on those new allegations.   However, the taxpayer’s attempt to stop the IRS from enforcing Section 280E was not successful under the facts of this case.

The case is Alpenglow Botanicals, LLC v. U.S., Colorado Dist. Ct. Case No. 16-cv-00258-RM-CBS.  Opinion and Order Continue Reading Colorado District Court: IRS Enforcement of Section 280E Is Not A Criminal Investigation

Tax and accounting issues you should not ignore when setting up your cannabis business:

The Trouble With Cash-Based Businesses

  • Internal Controls – any cash-based business is closely scrutinized by the IRS and other taxing authorities. Having robust internal control procedures, in writing, which are strictly enforced, will go a long way in establishing credibility with taxing authorities.
  • Form 8300 requirements – educate yourself or hire an accountant who can work with you to comply with this filing requirement.
  • Bank Secrecy Act – take precautions to avoid violations

Find Good Help

  • Hiring reputable Certified Public Accountants (CPA) and legal counsel to assist you in operating your business is very important.
  • CPAs often do not have guidance from their licensing boards regarding representation of marijuana businesses and many are therefore reluctant to offer advice.
  • Many large law firms are still reluctant to assist marijuana businesses despite actions by numerous state bar associations to assure attorneys they will not be violating state ethics rules when representing businesses in the legalized marijuana industry.
  • However, sophisticated advisers are starting to work with the industry, both in-house and as external advisers.

Comply, Comply, Comply

  • Abide by Internal Revenue Code section 280E – this requires knowledgeable and diligent accounting advice.
  • Be ready for an audit and for dealing with very aggressive revenue agents. Even though federal law enforcement in many cases is easing up on enforcement under CSA, the IRS has not adopted that view – marijuana businesses have a huge target on their back and the IRS is holding marijuana businesses to a very high standard.
  • Be timely and fully pay your taxes – tax liens can create issues with licensing authorities.