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National Taxpayer Advocate Delivers 2021 Annual Report to Congress With No Mention Of Unfair Taxation Of Cannabis Businesses Or Uncertainty Of IRC Section 280E.

As required by law, once a year the Taxpayer Advocate’s Office (an independent Federal government department that monitors the Internal Revenue Service) must send a report to Congress describing challenges the IRS is facing, problems experienced by taxpayers in dealing with the IRS and recommendations to resolve these problems.

On January 12, 2022, National Taxpayer Advocate Chief Erin M. Collins released her 2021 Annual Report to Congress focusing on the unprecedented challenges taxpayers faced in filing their tax returns and receiving refunds and stimulus payments during a year consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically noting that tens of millions of taxpayers experienced delays in the processing of their returns and with 77% of individual taxpayers receiving refunds “processing delays translated directly into refund delays”. The report also finds that the underfunding of the IRS over the last decade has resulted in the IRS still using antiquated technology and inadequate staffing levels to meet taxpayers’ needs.

Advocate Chief Collins also released the 2022 edition of the National Taxpayer Advocate’s “Purple Book” which presents 68 legislative recommendations designed to strengthen taxpayer rights and improve tax administration.

But despite listing 68 legislative recommendations (2 more than the previous year’s annual report), Advocate Chief Collins makes no mention of the unfair taxation of cannabis businesses or uncertainty of IRC §280E.

Taxation Of Cannabis Businesses And IRC Section 280E

While the sale of cannabis is legal in California as well as in a growing number of states, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 narcotic under Federal law, the Controlled Substances Act. As such businesses in the cannabis industry are not treated like ordinary businesses. Despite state laws allowing cannabis, it remains illegal on a federal level but cannabis businesses are obligated to pay federal income tax on income because I.R.C. §61(a) does not differentiate between income derived from legal sources and income derived from illegal sources.

The Sixteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the Federal government from taxing “gross receipts”. In Edmondson vs. Commissioner, 42 T.C.M. (CCH) 1533 (T.C. 1981), the Tax Court decided that Jeffrey Edmonson, self-employed in the trade or business of selling amphetamines, cocaine, and cannabis, was permitted to deduct his business expenses resulting from his trade. Discomforted by this outcome, the following year Congress enacted I.R.C. §280E, disallowing all deductions and credits for amounts paid or incurred in the illegal trafficking in drugs listed in the Controlled Substances Act.

Under I.R.C. §280E, taxpayers cannot deduct any amount for a trade or business where the trade or business consists of trafficking in controlled substances…which is prohibited by Federal law. Cannabis, including medical cannabis, is a controlled substance. While I.R.C. §280E disallows cannabis-related businesses to deduct “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, it would be unconstitutional for the IRS to disallow businesses to deduct Cost Of Goods Sold when calculating gross income. This concept was first applied in the Tax Court case of Olive vs. Commissioner Of Internal Revenue, 139 T.C. 19 (2012).

Change In The IRS’ Perception Of Cannabis 

In January 2015, the IRS issued a memo to provide guidance to its agents on conducting audits of cannabis businesses addressing whether an IRS agent can require a taxpayer trafficking in a Schedule 1 controlled substance to change its tax accounting to conform to IRC section 280E.  Not surprisingly that the IRS ruled that IRS agents have the authority to change a cannabis business’ method of accounting so that pursuant to IRC section 280E costs which should not be included in inventory are not included in Cost Of Goods Sold (“COGS”) and remain non-deductible for income tax purposes.

On March 30, 2020, the Treasury Inspector General For Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a report to the IRS pointing them toward targeting the state-licensed cannabis industry for lost tax revenue.  The IRS has said it will implement certain recommendations in this report, specifically:

  • Develop a comprehensive compliance approach for the cannabis industry, including a method to identify businesses in this industry and track examination results;
  • Leverage publically available information at the State level and expand the use of existing Fed/State agreements to identify nonfilers and unreported income in the cannabis industry; and
  • Increase educational outreach towards unbanked taxpayers making cash deposits regarding the unbanked relief policies available.

In a hearing before the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on February 23, 2021, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress that the federal agency would “prefer” for state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to pay taxes electronically, as the current largely cash-based system under federal cannabis prohibition is onerous and presents risks to workers.

IRS Published Guidance For Cannabis Businesses

The IRS has created a page on its website, which includes links to information on:

  • IRC Section 280E
  • Income reporting
  • Cash payment options
  • Reporting large cash receipts
  • Estimated payments
  • Keeping good records

The IRS also posted frequently asked questions on to answer questions commonly asked by those in the cannabis/marijuana industry.

Cannabis Tax Audits & Litigation.

It is no surprise that cannabis businesses are proliferating as more States legalize cannabis and make available licenses to grow, manufacture, distribute and sell cannabis. The IRS recognizes this and it is making these cannabis businesses face Federal income tax audits. IRC section 280E is at the forefront of all IRS cannabis tax audits and enforcement of section 280E could result in unbearable tax liabilities.

Proving deductions to the IRS is a two-step process:

  • First, you must substantiate that you actually paid the expense you are claiming.
  • Second, you must prove that an expense is actually tax deductible.

Step One: Incurred And Paid The Expense.

For example, if you claim a $5,000 purchase expense from a cannabis distributor, offering a copy of a bill or an invoice from the distributor (if one is even provided) is not enough. It only proves that you owe the money, not that you actually made good on paying the bill. The IRS accepts canceled checks, bank statements and credit card statements as proof of payment. But when such bills are paid in cash as it typical in a cannabis business, you would not have any of these supporting documents but the IRS may accept the equivalent in electronic form.

Step Two: Deductibility Of The Expense.

Next you must prove that an expense is actually tax deductible. For cannabis businesses this is challenging because of the IRC section 280E limitation. Recall that under IRC section 280E, taxpayers cannot deduct any amount for a trade or business where the trade or business consists of trafficking in controlled substances…which is prohibited by Federal law. What this means is that dispensaries and other businesses trafficking in cannabis have to report all of their income and cannot deduct rent, wages, and other expenses, making their marginal tax rate substantially higher than most other businesses.

A cannabis business can still deduct its Cost Of Goods Sold (“COGS”). Cost of goods sold are the direct costs attributable to the production of goods. For a cannabis reseller this includes the cost of cannabis itself and transportation used in acquiring cannabis. To the extent greater costs of doing business can be legitimately included in COGS that will that result in lower taxable income. You can be sure the IRS agents in audits will be looking closely at what is included in COGS. Working with a cannabis tax attorney can ensure that you receive the proper treatment of COGS versus ordinary and necessary expenses resulting in the lowest possible income tax liability.

In addition to IRS audits, state cannabis audits are also complex and thorough and generally include all taxes specific and nonspecific to the cannabis business. Potentially at risk is the cannabis license that enables the business to operate. State audits will focus on records regarding sales and use tax, excise taxes, and seed-to-sale tracking records.

Now if your cannabis IRS tax audit is not resolved, the results may be challenged and litigated in the U.S. Tax Court or Federal District Court. The U.S. Tax Court has jurisdiction to hear disputes over federal income taxes before final assessment and collections while the Federal District Court generally requires taxpayers to first pay the liability then seek repayment through a refund request.

Tips For Cannabis Tax Return Preparation.

Here are some tips for cannabis businesses to follow in the preparation of their 2021 tax returns.

  • Reconcile Your Books Before Closing Your Books. Incomplete books can cause delays and add unnecessary complexities.
  • Utilize A Cannabis Tax Professional. Engage a tax professional who has experience in the cannabis industry. Such a professional would be familiar with the intricacies of IRC Sec. 280E and relevant cases to make the proper presentation on the tax return in a manner that would support the smaller tax liability possible.
  • Justify Your Numbers As If An IRS Audit Is A Certainty. Don’t wait to receive a notice from IRS that the tax return is selected for examination.  That can be one or two years away.  Instead make it a point to put together the backup to you numbers now while everything is fresh.

What Should You Do?

Ultimately it is the tax risk with IRS that could put any cannabis business “out of business” so you need to protect yourself and your investment. Level the playing field and gain the upper hand by engaging the cannabis tax attorneys at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County (Irvine), Inland Empire (Ontario and Palm Springs) and other California locations. We can come up with tax solutions and strategies and protect you and your business and to maximize your net profits.  Also, if you are involved in crypto-currency, check out what a Bitcoin tax attorney can do for you.

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