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William Byrnes (Texas A&M) tax & compliance articles

The Battle to Legalize Marijuana Comes Down to Tax Deductions and the 16th Amendment

Posted by William Byrnes on November 6, 2019

Every day I comb through my Law360 Tax Authority list of articles in order to update one of my tax treatises.  I found a really interesting one though today for my Money Laundering treatise.  It’s about fitting an elephant through a keyhole.  With enough pressure, it can be done, but by breaking down the entire door.  The case is Northern California Small Business Assistants Inc. v. Commissioner, 153 T.C. No. 4 (Oct. 23, 2019).  The Law360 Tax Authority analysis is here: https://www.law360.com/articles/1215134/tax-court-decision-may-open-up-new-challenges-to-280e

My commentary this week… (well, it will be for a debate in my Spring Fed Income Tax course actually)

Of course, it’s not a violation of 8th because not a penalty, albeit I appreciate the (losing) argument.  Yet, at this stage, cross-aisle agree both federal Cannabis-leaf-hempand state, marijuana, at least at defined dosages, it is more like Valium on Schedule IV then Vicodin Schedule II.  The Schedules allow for dosage amounts. Only ardent prohibitionists I think (I am no expert) want the Schedule I classification to remain.  I am sure state leaders, the financial industry (because of the AML provisions of the BSA), the IRS, and the AG industry want it reduced to at least Schedule II but preferably Schedule IV where it belongs.  Or break it up by THC levels into Sch II, III, and IV.

But I think that the DEA is the real problem. I do not understand why the DEA will not remove marijuana from the blacklist (Schedule I) unless the DEA needs it on Schedule I to maintain its significant funding for global marijuana crop eradication programs because govt agencies never shrink themselves by giving up jurisdiction or budget. But I do not believe that the FDA, HHS, et al who inform the DEA want to keep it at Schedule I.  Read the DEA’s current policy regarding CBD and THC-Cannabis.  The medical pharmacological evidence is building of the benefits for various ailments, see the 2017 National Institutes of Health meta analysis (Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting).  All pharma has side effects so the fact that some participants who ingested the THC Cannabis (“got high”) reported being dizzy is very mild (‘don’t operate heavy machinery or drive’ warning labels mandatory). Prolonged and heavy use of any pharma, any drug like caffeine (of which I have much experience, but not willing to kick the habit yet) and alcohol, is probably going to be harmful to very harmful to just out-right early death.  I am not saying something new – everyone in the debate already knows all the arguments for and against.  So it’s either the teetotaler lobby, the DEA not wanting to give up ‘the war against marijuana”, or a combination, keeping marijuana on Schedule I.

So lots of pressure on Treasury to fix two insurmountable issues to marijuana state-licensed businesses from being federally legit and compliant. The BSA problem for AML compliance (keeps this a cash business) and the IRC 280E problem (makes marijuana industry a federal tax evader or unprofitable because effective rates of taxation of state and federal are in many cases greater than 100% of net income).  And Treasury wants to fix it.  But its hands are technically tied because the DEA will not delist marijuana from Schedule I.  That forces 280E and AML rules to kick in.  I’d be happy for Treasury to ignore the law but it’s too dangerous for Treasury or any agency to pick and choose what laws to adhere to. Of course, the discretion of enforcement is a totally different issue.

The AML issue Treasury issued, albeit the former prohibitionist AG basically said DOJ is not playing ball, a soft guidance explaining to banks how to distinguish good and bad marijuana dollars (the Marijuana SAR guidance). (See marijuana SAR results for 2018) For 280E though, Treasury would need to tell the IRS to ignore 280E marijuana stated licensed businesses fraudulent filed returns to circumvent the prohibition of deductions.  It would be really hard to administer the audits.

If Treasury cannot do it, but wants to do it, that leaves the Tax Court.  The Tax Court judges have over the past two years have concluded that marijuana should be removed from Schedule I so that 280E is not an issue.  In this case, once again the conclusion is:

“Congress, rather than this Court, is the proper body to redress petitioner’s grievances. We are constrained by the law, and Congress has not carved out an exception in section 280E for businesses that operate lawfully under State law.”

It’s only doing so because the IRS Counsel (must I think) express this in arguments to the Court, begging the Court for a way out of this mess. So the Tax Court has written that Congress or an agency needs to fix the problem.  It hasn’t been fixed.   And then this case where a powerful voice on the Tax Court said to the DEA and Congress: ‘do not force us to rectify the problem because you are not going to like the theoretical hoop we must jump through to do it.’

So, the theoretical argument that could gain some traction about the denial of all deductions by 280E is that it imposes the tax rate (say 37%) on revenue which may violate the intention of the 16th Amendment.  This is what Gustafon is musing about at page 23. I agree.

At page 26 the point is driven home (pun coming..):

Very different would be an attempt by Congress to tax gross proceeds from the sale of a capital asset, without allowing a taxpayer to account for his “basis” in the property in calculating his taxable gain.”

So imagine Congress imposes the ordinary tax rate on the sale price of an individual taxpayer’s sale of the home.  Say 37% on $500,000.  Taxpayer not allowed the basis reduction of the acquisition cost of $450,000 three years ago.  TP owes $185,000 tax (and also the additional 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax), on the $50,000 – expenses of the transaction gain.  Of course, this is absurd because property requires financing and the remaining would be less than any mortgage secured loan.  Same scenario but now shares in Apple bought at $220 last year by our home owing taxpayer and 13 months later sold for $250.  Economic collapse.  TP rebellion.  Not a pretty civil scenario.

Well, 280E does not deny deductions for the cost of goods (of the narcotics like marijuana or heroin – I do not think marijuana should be a black-listed scheduled narcotic).  But why not?  Because, simply put, an ‘income’ tax on business ‘income’ should be imposed on the ‘income’ and not on the revenue which is not a business’ income.  A tax imposed on a business revenue is something other than an ‘income tax’.  Excise tax maybe, but not an income tax.  See Judge Gustafson explain this at page 26-27.

Likewise, a congressional attempt to tax the gross receipts of a business engaged in sales should fail. A taxpayer who purchased 100 widgets at a cost of $10 each and sold them at a price of $9 each would have gross receipts or sales of $900, which after being reduced by the “cost of goods sold” (“COGS”) of $1,000 (analogous to basis in the Blackacre example) would yield a loss of $100. Given that obvious loss, Congress could not tax the gross receipts of $900 as if it were “income”. Rather, as the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has explained: “To ensure taxation of income rather than sales, the ‘cost of goods sold’ is a mandatory exclusion from the calculation of a taxpayer’s gross income.””

Can Congress levy a tax on revenue under the 16th?  We know the answer is no because that is why COG is allowed to be above the line to derive an income, and then 280E applies.  Well settled.  See page 27.

The taxation of “income” must take account of the “basis” in a capital asset and of the COGS of inventory–not merely as an exercise of “legislative grace” but as mandatory under the Sixteenth Amendment of the Constitution.”

So some expenses are allowed being COG, and other, operating expenses, not allowed.  Already 280E is in a quagmire of discriminating between good and bad expenses to fit into the 16th.  Thus, the Tax Court could force a bushel of marijuana through a 280E keyhole using the pressure of the 16th Amend if it must to deal with this situation.  Gustafson’s push through the keyhole is the second part of his sentence highlighted below at page 29.

“Congress taxes something other than a taxpayer’s “income” when it taxes gross receipts without accounting for basis or COGS--and, I would hold, when it taxes gross receipts without accounting for the ordinary and necessary expenses that are incurred in the course of business and must be paid before one can be said to have gain.”

The argument requires stretching the keyhole with a lot of 16th Amend pressure (though I personally quite like the 16th argument) and Appellate Circuits may want to keep the keyhole rather small and deflate that pressure.  But I think that the 1st, 9th, and 10th judges have to live in states where education or other government funding is significantly helped by the state-legal licensed marijuana industry.  Judges look at neighbor farmers who cannot sell to China about to go belly up with their grains and soybean – where marijuana can save the farm.  I have no litigation or controversy experience but I imagine some Appellate judges know these situations from reading or table talk.

So if the stretch of the 280E keyhole is not totally implausible by using the 16th Amend, a panel may just agree to send a message like the Tax Court to the DEA and failing that, Congress.  Anyway, the Supremes can sort out the ramifications of using the 16th to stretch the 280E keyhole.  And by that time, maybe the DEA did what the public pressure wants it to do, and is the right thing to do based on medical evidence being generated, move marijuana, based on amount of THC, to the relevant schedules of II through IV.

Anyway, my take on this case.  Look forward to our Spring debate.

One Response to “The Battle to Legalize Marijuana Comes Down to Tax Deductions and the 16th Amendment”

  1. E Gerald Hebert said

    Cannabis in the future will b regulated. M S Env science -Toxicology.

    Regards – Tboy



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