The legal cannabis industry was recently rocked to its core by the announcement that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be rescinding the so-called “Cole memo” and several other Obama-era legal directives suggesting the federal government would leave state-by-state cannabis reforms more or less alone. Suddenly, it seemed the entire cannabis movement was in jeopardy. Laws legalizing medical and recreational cannabis could be at risk. A booming industry predicted to be worth $50 billion annually by 2026 could instead be going down in flames.
Here’s the good news: As a business transactions attorney who’s been working in the cannabis industry for eight years, I don’t see any cause for panic. The Cole memo and the other directives the Justice Department are rescinding were not laws, orders or even legal precedents – they were simply legal guidance, and murky at that. The memos provided guidance to federal prosecutors regarding cannabis enforcement under federal law, suggesting that federal prosecutors not focus resources on state-legal cannabis operations that weren’t interfering with other federal priorities, such as preventing the distribution of cannabis to minors and preventing revenue from the sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. Yes, federal prosecutors could take Sessions’ recent moves to mean it’s open season on medical and recreational cannabis businesses. But with medical cannabis programs of one form or another up and running in 29 states and Washington D.C., and recreational cannabis now legal in eight states and Washington D.C., dismantling the entire legal cannabis industry would require a Herculean federal effort that would come at the expense of a cornerstone of the Republican Party now in power: The vital importance of states’ rights.The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators
In other words, I don’t see the termination of the Cole memos as the end of the nascent cannabis industry. But I do think the development should be a wake-up call for all those people in the cannabis industry who have been playing fast and loose with their business operations. After all, if federal prosecutors do decide to make examples of certain cannabis operations, they’re going start with those who are not operating within the confines of the applicable state rules and regulations. Any business that smells even slightly of tax evasion, interstate trafficking or the allocation of cannabis-derived revenue to benefit a criminal enterprise will end up at the top of that target list.
So how should well-meaning cannabis operators stay off the feds’ radar? Simple: Follow all the rules.
Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.For starters, you need a CPA who’s not just at the top of their game, but who also understands the very specific – and potentially debilitating – nuances of cannabis-specific tax liabilities. That’s because thanks to a quirk in the tax code called IRS section 280E, cannabis companies are utterly unique in that they are not allowed to deduct expenses from their business income, save for the costs of goods sold. You want an accountant who thoroughly grasps this issue, so they can help you plan for and (to the extent possible) minimize your tax liability. And you want to address such matters before you start to realize positive revenue, so you’re ready to handle an effective tax rate that can be upwards of 70 percent. Last I checked, the IRS doesn’t consider “But I can’t afford to pay my taxes!” a valid excuse.
Along the same lines, you need a business corporate attorney who’s well-versed in the world of cannabis. That’s because while it might seem exciting to jump headlong into the cannabis green rush, you’re not going to get very far if you don’t deal with the boring stuff first. I’m talking about start-up financing strategies, business contracts and agreements, profit and loss forecasts, cash-flow analysis, and long-term financial plans. Properly structuring your business from the get-go isn’t just important if you ever plan to seek capital or sell your business. It’s also necessary if you want to keep the feds happy. In other industries, regulators might cut first-time business owners some slack. Not so in cannabis. Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.
Finally, make sure you’re playing by all the cannabis rules, regulations and requirements of your state and jurisdiction. While this suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, far too often cannabis brands hire hotshots from Fortune 500 companies who don’t know anything about cannabis regulations and how they apply to their business.
The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators. Here in Arizona, I am in constant contact with our regulators discussing nuances and new business concepts for which the rules are unclear, convoluted or simply silent. Working with the enforcers might not come naturally to many folks in the cannabis business, but we’re dealing with a new and evolving industry where there’s little or no business, regulatory or judicial precedent. We’re all in this together.
It’s exciting to be at the bleeding edge of a bold and booming new industry like cannabis, but to do so safely and legally, cannabis industry pioneers need to make sure they’re striking the right balance between daring innovation and sensible business security.
We shouldn’t expect Jeff Sessions to launch a new army of prohibition agents around the country to kick down doors of cannabis businesses. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea for cannabis entrepreneurs to start acting like he might.