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The Other IRS Scandal: Outright War Against Marijuana Dispensaries

"Should the IRS campaign be successful, it will ... eliminate tens of thousands of well paying jobs, [and] destroy hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue."
 
 
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Dispensaries providing marijuana to doctor-approved patients operate in a number of states, but they are under assault by the federal government. SWAT-style raids by the DEA and finger-wagging press conferences by grim-faced federal prosecutors may garner greater attention, but the assault on medical marijuana providers extends to other branches of the government as well, and moves by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to eliminate dispensaries' ability to take standard business deduction are another very painful arrow in the federal quiver.

The IRS employs Section 280E, a 1982 addition to the tax code that was a response to a drug dealer's successful effort to claim his yacht, weapons purchases, and even illicit bribes as business expenses. Under 280E, individuals involved in the illicit sale of controlled substances -- including marijuana, even medical marijuana in states where it is legal -- cannot claim standard business expenses on their federal taxes.

"The 280E provision which requires certain businesses to pay taxes on their gross income, as opposed to their net income, is aimed at shutting down illicit drug operations, not state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana defense group  Americans for Safe Access." Nonetheless, the Obama Administration is using Section 280E to push these local and state licensed facilities out of business."

The provision can be used to great effect. Oakland's  Harborside Health Center was hit with a $2 million IRS assessment in 2011 after the tax agency employed Section 280E against. Harborside is fighting that assessment, even as it continues to try to fend off federal prosecutors' attempts to shut it down by seizing the properties it leases. Similarly, when the feds raided Richard Lee's Oaksterdam University that same year, it wasn't just DEA, but  also IRS agents who stormed the premises. Lee said it was because of a 280E-related audit.

The attacks on Harborside and Oaksterdam were part of an IRS campaign of aggressive audits using 280E to deny legitimate business expenses, such as rent, payroll, and all other necessary business expenses. These denials result in astronomical back tax bills for the affected dispensaries, threatening their viability -- and patients' access to their medicine.

"Should the IRS campaign be successful; it will throw millions of patients back in to the hands of street dealers; eliminate tens of thousands of well paying jobs, destroy hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue; enrich the criminal underground; and endanger the safety of communities in the 17 medical cannabis states," said Harborside's Steve DeAngelo as he announced the  280E Reform Project to begin to fight back.

It's going to be an uphill battle. In the last Congress, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) introduced  House Bill 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act, designed to end the 280E problem for medical marijuana businesses, but it went to the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee, where it was never heard from again.

Still, something needs to happen, said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the  National Cannabis Industry Association, which this year is working with members of Congress to try to find a fix for the 280E problem.

"When Section 280E was created in the 1980s, no one imagined state-legal marijuana providers," Aldworth told the Chronicle. "Whether or not it is part of a larger effort to curtail the development of regulated models for providing marijuana, which is a model that is clearly preferable to leaving this popular and relatively safe medicine (or adult product) in the underground market, these onerous tax rates have severely hampered the development of the regulated market."

 
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