By Jennifer E. Benda

Yesterday the Tax Court issued two decisions discussing the impact of Section 280E on cannabis businesses.  One of these cases addresses the application of Section 280E to licensed and non-licensed entities.  Both cases address the application of penalties to cannabis businesses.

Alternative Health Care Advocates v. Comm’r

This case involves a California dispensary, Alternative Healthcare Advocates (“Alternative”), that operated similarly to the dispensary at issue in the Patients Mutual I case issued last month and discussed here.  Alternative was taxed as a C corporation.  Alternative sold marijuana and non-marijuana products.  Alternative claimed deductions other than cost of goods sold (“COGS”) on its tax returns.

In addition,  a management company, Wellness Management Group, Inc. (“Wellness”), was established for purposes of providing employees to dispensaries.  Wellness elected to be taxed as an S corporation.   Wellness’s deductions consisted of compensation, salaries and wages, rent, taxes and licenses, advertising, and other deductions.  Wellness’s only customer was Alternative.

The IRS allowed Alternative to deduction the total COGS claimed on its returns.  Applying Section 280E, the IRS disallowed all deductions claimed on Alternative’s return.  The IRS also disallowed all deduction claimed on Wellness’s returns, asserting that it also was subject to Section 280E.  This is the first case dealing with whether Section 280E applies to a non-licensed taxpayer.

Alternative argued that selling medical marijuana under state law did not fall within the Section 280E requirement that the taxpayer’s activities consist of drug trafficking and that it was permitted to allocate expenses between its trafficking and non-trafficking activities.  For the same reasons set forth in Patients Mutual, the court rejected these arguments and held that Alternative was not entitled to the deductions claimed on the returns.

Wellness argued that its activities did not consist of trafficking in a controlled substance.  The court concluded that “the only difference between what Alternative did and what Wellness did (since Alternative acted only through Wellness) is that Alternative had title to marijuana and Wellness did not.”  Slip Op. at 28.  The court held that Wellness employees were engaged in the purchase and sale of marijuana on behalf of Alternative and that Wellness did not need to obtain title to the marijuana in order to be involved in the trafficking of marijuana.

Given the harsh result, Wellness argued that applying Section 280E to both Alternative and Wellness was “inequitable because deductions for the same activities would be disallowed twice.”  As we have previously highlighted, the courts have not been sympathetic to the inequities of Section 280E.  Here, the court bluntly concluded that “[t]hese tax consequences are a direct result of the organizational structure petitioners employed.”

Other Observations

  • The Tax Court gave an detailed discussion of the definition of trafficking that should be reviewed by any business solely engaged in the cannabis industry, even if not a state-licensed entity.
  • The amount of cost of goods sold claimed on the return was sustained.  The importance of engaging good accountants to prepare returns and properly determine COGS cannot be underestimated.

The Applicability of Penalties to Cannabis Companies

The Tax Court held that Alternative was subject to penalties because in determining their liabilities they relied on the CHAMP case, which the court concluded was factually distinguishable from Alternative’s facts, and because they provided no evidence that it relied on their accountant for advice on whether Section 280E applied.  As we have seen in other cases, while the facts are not clear, this finding leads us to believe that no expenses were disallowed pursuant to Section 280E.

In contrast, the Tax Court ruled in the Patients Mutual II case that the taxpayer’s reporting positions were reasonable based on the timing of prior Section 280E litigation, such as CHAMP and Olive, in relation to when the tax returns were filed.  The court also noted that “[k]eeping good books and records was one of Harborside’s strengths.”  Slip. Op. at 6.

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