Last week’s post may have left some readers feeling lightheaded or anxious. [1] It is highly unlikely that this week’s post will leave these individuals in a greatly altered state, though it may alleviate their condition to some extent, at least momentarily.

That is not to say that the issue at the root of today’s post is not controversial or divisive. Indeed, the Federal government continues to treat the production and sale of marijuana as an illegal activity, while the states are split in their stance on the legalization of marijuana. [2] At present, the likelihood that these parties will hash out a resolution of their differences seems remote.

A “Grass” Roots Debate
Both sides of the debate are driven, in part, by economic considerations, including the anticipated economic benefits and burdens. Among proponents of legalization, the opportunity to generate tax revenues from this growing industry – which may be used to fund social and other government-sponsored programs – presents a compelling case. Those opposed to legalization discount the projected tax revenues and point to the opportunity costs – including the attendant economic costs of treatment – that are associated with the increased use of any drug.

Even the Code itself is somewhat inconsistent in its treatment of the marijuana business, as was illustrated in a recent Tax Court decision.

“Let It Grow” [3]
Corp. was a corporation organized under the laws of State. Taxpayers were the sole shareholders of Corp. and also served as its officers during the years in issue. State licensed Corp. to grow and sell medical marijuana.

For the years in issue, Corp. elected to be treated as an S corporation for Federal income tax purposes.

Corp. claimed deductions from its gross income for expenses that would normally be characterized as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, including deductions for items such as officer compensation officers, wages, repairs and maintenance, rents, taxes and licenses, interest, depreciation, advertising, employee benefit programs, and “other deductions,” which it detailed on statements attached to its tax return.

Taxpayers filed joint income tax returns for the years in issue. They received income from Corp., both as pass-through income (in their capacity as shareholders of an S corporation) and as officer compensation (in their capacity as employees of the corporation).

Taxpayers reported the pass-through income from Corp. on their Schedules E, Supplemental Income and Loss, Part II, Income or Loss from Partnerships and S Corporations, attached to their income tax returns for the years in issue.

Taxpayers reported the wages they received from Corp. for the years at issue on their jointly filed Forms 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. These wage payments, or expenses, were included as a part of Corp.’s “ordinary and necessary” business deductions.

IRS “Enforcement” of Federal Drug Laws?
The IRS examined Corp.’s tax returns for the years in issue. Following the exam, the IRS adjusted Corp’s items of deduction that flowed through to the Taxpayers, thereby increasing their pass-through taxable income for the years at issue.

Specifically, the IRS determined that Corp.’s deductions for the wages paid to Taxpayers should be disallowed as current deductions because they were paid in carrying on an illegal drug business. [4]

At the same time, the IRS allowed Corp.’s cost of goods sold (“COGS”), to the extent they were substantiated.

Taxpayers and the IRS agreed that these disallowed wage deductions could not be characterized as COGS, and that in disallowing the wage deductions, Taxpayers’ flow-through income from Corp. would increase.

They disputed whether Corp. could deduct the wages that it paid to Taxpayers. to the extent that the IRS had disallowed the deductions.

Taxpayers petitioned the U.S. Tax Court, where the issue for consideration was whether the deductions claimed by Corp. for the wages it paid to Taxpayers that were not attributable to COGS for the years in issue should be disallowed.

Getting Into the Weed(s)
The Court began by restating the ground rules: (i) the taxpayer generally bears the burden of proving that the IRS’s determinations, as set forth in the notice of deficiency, are erroneous; and (ii) the taxpayer bears the burden of proving their entitlement to a deduction and of substantiating the amount of the item underlying the claimed deduction.

Deductions, the Court continued, are a matter of legislative grace, and a taxpayer must prove their entitlement to a particular deduction.

Ordinary and Necessary Expenses
The Code allows taxpayers to deduct “ordinary and necessary expenses,” [5] including a “reasonable allowance for salaries or other compensation for personal services actually rendered.” Thus, compensation is deductible in determining the taxable income of a business only if it is (1) reasonable in amount and (2) paid or incurred for services actually rendered.

However, it is important to separate business expenses from the expenses used to figure the COGS. If a business manufactures products, or purchases them for resale, it generally must value its inventory at the beginning and end of each tax year to determine its COGS. Some of its expenses, including wages, may be included in figuring the COGS.

Under the uniform capitalization rules, a business must capitalize, and include in its COGS, the direct costs and part of the indirect costs for certain production or resale activities. [6]

The COGS is not a “deduction” within the meaning of the Code, but it is subtracted from the gross receipts of the business to determine its gross profit for the year; the costs included in COGS are recovered upon the sale of the product (as opposed to the tax year in which they were paid or incurred).

If a business includes an expense in the COGS, it cannot deduct that expense again as a business expense. [7]

“Expenditures in Connection With the Illegal Sale of Drugs”

The Code precludes taxpayers from deducting any expense related to a business that consists of trafficking in a controlled substance.

No deduction or credit shall be allowed for any amount paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business (or the activities which comprise such trade or business) consists of trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any State in which such trade or business is conducted. [8]

The Court noted that marijuana was a controlled substance. It then stated that the dispensing of medical marijuana, while legal in State, was illegal under Federal law. Congress set this illegality under Federal law, the Court said, as one trigger to preclude a taxpayer from deducting expenses incurred in a medical marijuana dispensary business, even if the business is legal under State law. [9]

Interestingly, although the Code disallows deductions only for the expenses paid or incurred by a business in the illegal sale of drugs, it does not preclude a taxpayer from taking into account its COGS – in other words, the disallowance does not affect the COGS; if appropriate, the expense may still be included in the taxpayer’s COGS and may be subtracted in determining the taxpayer’s profits from the sale of the drug. [10]

Taxpayers’ Arguments
Taxpayers argued that the disallowance of the wages paid to them by Corp. resulted in discriminatory treatment of S corporation owners of marijuana businesses in violation of subchapter S. They argued that the IRS’s treatment of their wage income as an expense subject to disallowance caused the same income to be taxed twice, once as wages, and a second time (because of the disallowance of the deduction) as S corporation income. They contended that this resulted in the disallowed wage deductions attributable to “drug trafficking” being included in Taxpayers’ earnings, which flowed through to them without any deduction for the wages.

Taxpayers contended that this discriminatory treatment resulted from an S corporation’s being “required” to pay a reasonable wage to its officers, [11] while other entities (for example, a partnership) were not subject to this reasonable wage requirement.

The Court’s Response
The Court pointed out that Taxpayers’ argument of double taxation assumed that there was no distinction between gross income from wages, on the one hand, and pass-through income from the ownership of an S corporation, on the other. The economic considerations for these two items of income differed, according to the Court, as did their tax treatments.

S Corp. Basics
The S corporation rules were designed, the Court explained, to create a pass-through taxation system under which income was subjected to only one level of taxation: to the shareholders and not the corporation.

The Code provides that items of income, loss, deduction, and credit of an S corporation are passed through pro rata to its shareholders and reported on their individual tax returns. The character of each item of income in the hands of a shareholder is determined as if it were directly from the source from which the corporation realized it or incurred in the same manner as it was by the corporation. A shareholder’s gross income includes their pro rata share of the S corporation’s gross income.

Thus, Corp.’s income passed through to Taxpayers, and they had to report it on their individual tax returns. Separately, and in addition to Corp.’s pass-through income, Taxpayers had to report the compensation they received as officers of Corp. as a part of their gross income on their individual returns.

Accordingly, Taxpayers had to include in their gross income not only their pro rata shares of Corp.’s income, but also their wages separately received for providing services to Corp.

The Court further stated that Taxpayers’ contention that the application of deduction-disallowance rule resulted in disparate treatment was misplaced. An S corporation subject to this rule remained a flow-through entity with one tax imposed at the shareholder level, as prescribed by subchapter S.

No Dope
The Court illustrated its point with the following example: If Taxpayers had hired a third party to perform the officer duties that they performed, and they paid that third party an amount equal to that included as wages in Taxpayers’ gross income, their gross income would not include the third party’s wages from Corp.; Taxpayers would ultimately have less income, but they would not owe Federal income tax on the wages paid to the third party. However, the deduction-disallowance rule would still disallow Corp.’s wage expense deductions not attributable to COGS. Taxpayers’ flow-through income would be the same. Thus, the application of the rule to deny Corp.’s wage expense deductions was not discriminatory; it applied equally, regardless of whether Taxpayers themselves or a third party received the wages.

To the extent that Taxpayers believed they received disparate tax treatment as a result of organizing their marijuana business as an S corporation, the Court continued, they were free to operate as any form of business entity and in other trades. Taxpayers chose to operate Corp. as an S corporation in the marijuana business. They were responsible for the tax consequences of their decision.

Wait for Pot Luck?

Until the Code is amended, or until Congress decides that marijuana should not be illegal under Federal law, taxpayers who engage in the marijuana business in those States in which it is legal to do so will have to contend with increased income tax liability resulting from the deduction-disallowance rule described above.

However, because this rule does not apply to figuring the COGS, taxpayers engaged in a marijuana-related production or resale business will have to be careful about maintaining meticulous records in order to substantiate their COGS and support the gross profit reported from the sale of their products.

As in the case of other businesses that produce property for sale or that acquire property for resale, it may be possible to increase one’s COGS. Yes, this seems counterintuitive, but not where the alternative is the disallowance of a business expense deduction.

In any case, the method by which this result is achieved must be undertaken for a bona fide and substantial non-tax business reason. [12] At the same time, it must comply closely with the uniform capitalization rules so as to squeeze as much juice from them as reasonably possible.

Time will tell.


[1] Regarding the Federal tax treatment of CFCs that are owned by S corporations following the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

[2] Polls indicate that a majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. Nine States and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Another 29 States have legalized so-called “medical marijuana.” A handful have decriminalized its use. Last week, Canada became the second nation to legalize marijuana use.

[3] With apologies to the Grateful Dead.

[4] The disallowance of Corp.’s deduction does not necessarily change the tax treatment for Taxpayers of the wages paid to them. For example, the wages were not re-characterized as distributions made to Taxpayers in respect of the shares of Corp. stock.

[5] An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your trade or business. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your trade or business. An expense does not have to be indispensable to be considered necessary.

[6] Indirect costs include rent, interest, taxes, storage, purchasing, processing, repackaging, handling, and administrative costs.

[7] The following are types of expenses that go into figuring COGS: The cost of products or raw materials, including freight; storage; direct labor costs (including contributions to pension plans) for workers who produce the products; factory overhead.

[8] Cannabis remains illegal under federal law. Controlled Substances Act (P.L. 91-513), as amended. IRC Sec. 280E was added to the Code in 1982 by P.L. 97-248 (“TEFRA”). Query how a court would react to a taxpayer’s invoking the Fifth Amendment in response to an information document request from the IRS. Query how new IRC Sec. 199A and its “20%-of-qualified business income deduction” will be applied to a marijuana business; after all, unlike business expenses, the “deduction” is taken after adjusted gross income is determined.

[9] At some point, Congress or the Courts will have to address the conflict between those States that have legalized the marijuana business and the Code’s deduction-disallowance rule.

[10] This rule does not appear in the Code; rather, it is found in the Senate Finance Committee Report to TEFRA 1982. Thus, for example, the costs of growing marijuana or of manufacturing marijuana products may be included in COGS.

[11] For many years, the shareholders of S corporations who were employed by, and actually provided services to, their corporations, chose not to pay themselves any salary in exchange for such services. In this way, they sought to avoid the employment taxes that are required to be imposed upon salaries; the employment taxes do not apply to a shareholder’s pro rata share of S corporation income or to the distribution of such income. The IRS has successfully challenged this gambit.

[12] In a sense, the conceptual ideas for maximizing a taxpayer’s benefit under IRC Sec. 199A may be applicable here as well.