Deductions Denied to Medical Marijuana Dispensary

Robert Oberstein |

A nonprofit corporation that operated a medical-marijuana dispensary legally under California law was not allowed to claim deductions for business expenses on its federal return. Code Sec. 280E, which prevents any trade or business that consists of trafficking in controlled substances from deducting any business expenses, applied.

Meaning of "Consists of"
The corporation argued that a business does not "consist of" drug trafficking within the meaning of Code Sec. 280E unless its activities relate exclusively with drug trafficking (i.e., selling marijuana). Since its dispensary offered services and goods to its clients other than the sale of medical marijuana, the corporation claimed that Code Sec. 280E does not apply to any of its activities.

The court rejected this argument, noting that it had previously considered and rejected the same argument in an earlier case involving a different taxpayer ( M. Olive, Dec. 59,146, aff’d, CA-9, 2015-2 ustc ¶50,377). Although the phrase "consists of" in common usage refers to an exhaustive or exclusive list, the court noted that the corporation’s interpretation would render Code Sec. 280E ineffective. For example, a drug dealer selling a single item that was not a controlled substance would not be covered by the provision. The court found that various dictionary definitions, certain usage in other Code Sections, and case law that considered the meaning of the phrase did not require an interpretation based on exclusiveness.

Non-Trafficking Trades or Businesses
Although Code Sec. 280E applied to deductions related to the corporation’s marijuana sales, the court had previously ruled that it does not apply to any separate, non-trafficking trades or businesses ( Californians Helping to Alleviate Med. Problems, Inc. (CHAMP), Dec. 56,935). The court considered whether any of the corporation’s non-trafficking activities were separate trades or businesses. According to the corporation, non-trafficking activities consisted of sales of products with no marijuana, therapeutic services, and brand development.

The court concluded that the sale of products other marijuana than at the corporation’s dispensaries was too closely linked to the sale of the marijuana itself to constitute a separate trade or business. The products generally related to the promotion or use of marijuana and were sold by the same staff that sold the marijuana. Similarly, free "holistic" services that were paid for with approximately one percent of the proceeds from its marijuana sales were not a separate trade or business. Finally, the corporation’s brand development activity was entirely entwined with the marijuana business and could not be treated as a separate enterprise.

Cost of Goods Sold
Although the corporation was not entitled to any business deductions, it was liable for tax only on its gross receipts as reduced by cost of goods sold. For purposes of determining cost of goods sold, the court determined that the corporation could not apply Code Sec. 263A to include indirect expenses. Code Sec. 263A(a)(2) specifically prohibits the capitalization of otherwise nondeductible costs, such as drug trafficking expenses. Therefore, only direct expenses (and a few specified indirect expenses) required to be included in cost of goods sold under the general rules of Code Sec. 471 could be taken into account. For purposes of applying Code Sec. 471, the corporation was considered a reseller rather a producer because it had no ownership in the plants from which the marijuana it sold was produced.