On 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.
The STATES Act
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.