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What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 4: Banking & Tax Reform

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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To round out our federal reform review, we look at the bills introduced into the 115th Congress that attempt to resolve the banking and taxation problems faced by state-legal cannabis businesses. As this is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the cannabis industry, any movement by the feds on these issues will be welcomed. As it turns out, there are four proposals currently pending for fixing the broken cannabis financial services system, with each proposal comprising a pair of House-Senate companion bills. We look at each pair in turn.

Group 1

S. 1156 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act

HR. 2215 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act

Policy: These SAFE Acts would prohibit federal prosecutors and federal regulators from preventing or disciplining in any way a depository institution simply because that depository institution serviced a cannabis-related business.

Impact: The impact of these bills would be widespread for both the cannabis industry and for financial service institutions looking to capitalize on the cannabis industry. For banks, the bills would remove all of the barrier-risks that are now keeping them out of the cannabis business. Currently, the feds have handed down policy guidance to banks stating that as long as they submit what are called “Suspicious Activity Reports, or “SARs” for cannabis-related accounts, and conduct their due diligence to ensure such accounts are complying with state law, then those banks will not be pursued by federal law enforcement. The problem with this guidance is that it is only policy, it is not law, and so it can change on as little as an administrative whim. The protection from cannabis business risk, most banks have determined, is therefore temporary at best and illusory at worst. Passage of the SAFE Act would instantly change all of that and initiate a banking bonanza. Banks will be racing to profit off of what is amounting to a newly minted billion dollar industry. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly from all of this. Not only will they be able to stop operating strictly in cash and have access to all the traditional financial services that other businesses heavily rely on, but they will also be the beneficiaries of a highly competitive, and therefore affordable and efficient, cannabis banking market.

Procedural Status:

S. 1156

  • Introduced: May 17, 2017 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

    Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
    Image: Medill DC, Flickr
  • Cosponsors: 3 Republicans, 7 Democrats, 1 Independent
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs

HR. 2215

  • Introduced: April 27, 2017 by Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 7 Republicans, 44 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Financial Services

Group 2

S777 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017

HR 1810 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017

Policy: These bills would carve out an exception to IRC 280E allowing cannabis businesses to deduct ordinary business expenses from their federally taxable revenues.

Impact: If enacted these bills will dramatically ease the tax burden for cannabis businesses. Currently, even when they are in perfect compliance with state law, cannabis businesses are not permitted to deduct ordinary business expenses. This means that net taxable revenues are, and are going to continue to be, substantially higher than net taxable revenues for businesses in any other industry. If enacted, profit margins—and therefore product quality, operational efficiency and innovation—are going to uptick across all states that have legalized.

Procedural Status:

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Image: JD Lasica, Flickr

S. 777

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 4 Democrats
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1810

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)
  • Cosponsors: 10 Republicans, 24 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Ways and Means

Group 3

S. 780 – Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017

HR. 1824  Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017

Policy: These bills combine to accomplish what each of the foregoing pairs accomplish separately. IRC 280E would no longer apply to state-legal cannabis businesses, and banking would become available for them as well. Additionally, advertising prohibitions in the CSA and the Communications act of 1934 would be removed, with the one exception that advertisements inducing travel from a state where cannabis is not legal to a legal cannabis state would be prohibited. Under Title II of the acts, barriers to federal bankruptcy proceedings would be removed. These bills would also reform the CSA as it relates to criminal liability for individuals, criminal record expungement and medical research for institutions, all of which are noteworthy but neither of which directly impact the legal cannabis industry.

Impact: For the impact of IRC reform, see “Impact” section under S.777/HR.180. For the impact of banking reform, see “Impact” section under S.1156/HR/2215.

By leaving advertising guidelines completely up to the states, we would probably witness the easing of advertising restrictions by the states. Currently, states have tight advertising rules because, after protecting consumers, they do not want their state’s legal cannabis industry to draw attention from the feds in any way. That concern would become moot and we could see more advertising in and across legalized states. This would drive competition across larger markets, in terms of both product and service quality and branding/marketing strategy.

Access to federal bankruptcy proceedings would clarify the landscape for all potential financial scenarios in the lifecycle of cannabis businesses, which in turn will ease uncertainty concerns of potential investors. The bankruptcy provision, combined with the banking provisions will undoubtedly open access to capital for cannabis businesses looking to grow operations and market presence.

Procedural Status:

S. 780

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1824

Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
Photo: Bridget Baker, 92bridges.com
  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
      • Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law
      • Immigration and Border Security
    • Energy & Commerce
      • Health
    • Ways and Means
    • Financial Services
    • Natural Resources
      • Indian, Insular, and Alaskan Affairs
    • Education and the Workforce
    • Veterans’ Affairs
      • Health
    • Oversight and Government Reform

Group 4

S. 776 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act

HR. 1823 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act

Policy: Subchapters A and B of these bills would impose two additional federal tax requirements on cannabis businesses. The first would be an excise tax on all producers, beginning at a rate of 10%, and growing each year that a producer is in business to a cap of 25% at five years. The second tax would be an occupational tax of $1,000 per year, to be paid by the principals of any cannabis producer or warehouse proprietor. Significantly, these bills would also authorize the federal government to regulate operations in the industry.

Impact: The tax impact of these bills would be a straightforward additional tax that cannabis businesses would have to pay, on top of state and local taxes. The burden of additional taxes will inevitably impact profit margins, initial decisions on whether or not to enter the market and strategies for expansion and innovation. The impacts of federal authorization and regulatory requirements was discussed in the second article of the series, specifically under the “Impact” section of HR1841

Procedural Status:

S. 776

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1823

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Ways and Means
Soapbox

Cannabis Business Owners: How To Legalize It!

By Kay Smythe
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If you have never heard of the terms social capital or social homophily, you are not alone. To many in the cannabis space, these terms are quite foreign to them, but as we’ll find out, also quite crucial to them.

That’s okay. You’re not a social scientist, human geographer, macro nor micro sociologist, so why would you? However, I can guarantee that your life has been influenced by these two sociological paradigms, and if you’re a working member of the cannabis industry, these are the two theories that could result in your business failing, you ending up in jail or even bankrupt.

Don’t like capitalism? Tough.Let’s talk in layman’s terms.

Social capital: this wonderful theory can, in its essence, be described as the science behind “street cred.” Social capital refers to the lived social networks and relationships that you are a member of. Examples include: family, friendship groups, work colleagues, et cetera.

Social homophily: this even more excellent theory decides your social groups before they solidify. Homophily is the ability of the individual to only associate, and subsequently bond with, those that have similar interests, passions…

Together, these two theories work together to first decide upon your social groups (homophily), and subsequently lead to the building of tighter social networks (capital).

So, how does this relate to cannabis?

Unfortunately, like any other billion-dollar industry, cannabis will eternally depend on politics, the economy and men in suits. For want of a more succinct phrase, the cannabis industry depends on capitalism. Why? Because it’s a business, just like any other, and businesses live and die by whom you’re friends with.

Don’t like capitalism? Tough.

Herein lies the issue with the big players leading the cannabis industry: you guys play horribly with the people that control your fate.

The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing itCannabis is still federally illegal, and the general belief is that it has remained this way because the United States government does not yet have a big enough reason to legalize it. Ask any left-leaning sociologist, economist, or political scientist and they’ll tell you the honest truth: the people who run the cannabis industry do not have any influence over bankers, oil tycoons, major industry leaders, or any of the men in suits that you need to be friends with to get anything done in this country.

Think of it like this: the argument for the legalization of cannabis in Europe centers around alcohol. If you were walking home one night and you cut through an alleyway, who would you rather bump into: a drunk looking for a fight, or a stoner looking for a box of chocolate cookies? It’s a logical argument that plays to both the lowest common denominator, and the highest ranks of British government.

The thing is though; as we discussed in my last piece, cannabis is normalized across Western Europe, and so we don’t have the same issues as the United States.

In the United States, the sensible person wouldn’t walk down the alleyway in the first place. Therefore, we have to first normalize cannabis with normal Americans, and then look to legalize.

The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing it. However, the cannabis industry is wrought with incompetence that consistently marginalizes the space from societal norms, which is precisely why cannabis is still illegal, and why you’re killing your future business endeavors before they’ve begun.

The End Goal

I was recently told that I didn’t know enough slang to write for a cannabis company. Firstly, I had actually taken all of the slang terms from another member of the company (which was just plain embarrassing for the wannabe industry leader, but I wasn’t surprised – I mean, this is what I do), and secondly, can we all please read the article I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how using slang is one of the most detrimental moves that the cannabis consistently makes that further reduces legalization efforts.

Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxesDo you see HSBC or Chase using slang in their advertising campaigns?

What major political leaders have you seen trying to create divisions between them and those not “cool” enough to be in their gang?

I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m fairly confident that the Koch brothers have never used a skateboard as a consistent mode of transportation to or from work.

As a macro and micro sociologist, I can’t stress this enough: if you want your business to become legitimate, then you have to stop being legit. Most folks in the cannabis industry don’t want to be friends with big bankers, oil tycoons and billionaire businessmen, but creating such an inherent divide between the cannabis business and the rest of the working world ensures that our children will still go to jail in more than half of US states just for smoking a joint.

Time to Swallow Your Pride?

If you are reading this, and are currently an active member or leader in the cannabis industry, then please put your version of ‘street cred’ to the side. Your actions are the reason that most of your businesses fail, the reason you get robbed and don’t have the law on your side, why we have such huge numbers of minority men in our prisons, and more importantly its the reason that the rest of the real world sees you as irresponsible potheads, and not the innovators you could be.

You have the tools to make one of the biggest political changes for two-thousand years, so why not grow up, take one for the team, and have you and your business’s legacy revolve around the good you did for your fellow man, not as the ‘cool kid.’

Social homophily: You and the big business world want the same thing- legalization. Even Monsanto is getting in on the cannabis game, and I’d rather work for them and see actual change than sit in a room full of men smoking at their desks while they sell cannabis from a dark, illegal dispensary.

Social capital: Unfortunately, the big business world wins here. Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxes, realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it will if you play by their rules. You can still be a weekend hippy, but stop doing it in public. The world isn’t ready… yet.

DoJ Task Force Moves to Review Federal Cannabis Policy

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.

The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.

The email sent to Colorado prosecutor Michael Melito

The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.

Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.

Bipartisan Cannabis Reform Effort Unveiled in Congress

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith, seven measures were introduced today at the Capitol, covering a variety of issues that, if signed into law, would ease many of the legal implications on the federal level affecting cannabis businesses in legal states currently.

In a very important development, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, joined Rep. Earl Blumenauer as a lead sponsor of the 280E tax reform bill. According to an NCIA press release, that bill is The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 and was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

That bill gives cannabis businesses in legal states the opportunity to take business deductions like any other legal business. Right now cannabis businesses cannot deduct any expenses related to sales, given its Schedule I status. “Cannabis businesses aren’t asking for tax breaks or special treatment,” says Smith. “They are just asking to be taxed like any other legitimate business.”

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act in the House, which would put cannabis in the section of code that regulates intoxicating liquors, essentially giving the ATF oversight authority. “The flurry of bills on the Hill today are a reflection of the growing support for cannabis policy reform nationally,” says Smith. “State-legal cannabis businesses have added tens of thousands of jobs, supplanted criminal markets, and generated tens of millions in new tax revenue. States are clearly realizing the benefits of regulating marijuana and we are glad to see a growing number of federal policy makers are taking notice.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Photo: Michael Campbell, Flickr

Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer introduced The Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap (RAMP) Act, which addresses banking and tax fairness for businesses, civil forfeiture, and drug testing for federal employees. Both Blumenauer and Wyden represent Oregonians, who could benefit tremendously if it becomes legislation. Rep. Blumenauer also introduced The Marijuana Tax Revenue Act, which would put a federal excise tax of initially 10% on cannabis sales, then rising to 25% after five years, according to the NCIA press release.

Analyzing National Trends for Marijuana Policy: Q&A with Matt Karnes

By Aaron G. Biros, Matthew A. Karnes, CPA
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According to Matthew Karnes, founder and managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, LLC, looking toward the growth of the cannabis industry requires analysis of the changes in state and federal laws. “Eventual rescheduling or de-listing of marijuana as a federally prohibited drug, will hopefully lead to consistent and uniform national regulation and taxing authorizations that will ultimately change the structural and economic landscape of the industry,” says Karnes in an article here.COLOR-PIC-200x300

Looking at the sales trends in current legal states is a viable option to make financial projections, but much of that relies on the changing legal and political landscape of our country. According to Karnes, because it is impossible to accurately predict federal rescheduling or full legalization, investors must look at short, medium and long term trends to guide their decision making process. Cannabis Industry Journal sat down with Matthew Karnes to discuss some of the foreseeable trends.


 

Cannabis Industry Journal: What are some of the trends happening presently, that you can expect to continue?

Matthew Karnes: Just as states continue to pass legislation in some form of legalization measure, there is talk at the federal level of minimizing interference with state policies and removing prohibition statutes. We can see this national progression continuing until rescheduling cannabis eliminates the current obstructions that have limited industry growth.

Where states continue to roll out legislation to legalize cannabis, the rate of retail and cultivation license granting will have a large effect on the growth rates for each given state. Free market approaches as seen in Colorado and California will allow for faster growth rates than more restrictive states.

Recreational and adult use measures being introduced are notable disruptions in the medical sector that once fueled legalization. Medical research and development of strains for specific ailments is still in its early stages due to the impact of federal policy on research.

With an eye forward to eventual federal rescheduling or possible de-listing it is reasonable to assume that uniform national testing and operational standardization protocols will eventually be implemented at least as a baseline binding thread that will steadfastly assure consumers of an expectant consistency of product.

CIJ: Where do you see medium term trends taking the industry?

Matt: With more and more states legalizing cannabis in some form, we can expect the federal government to make a policy change. This will be accomplished via a DEA policy change or through congressional avenues in conjunction with federal agencies like the FDA, USDA and Department of Agriculture administering regulations.

With FDA or Department of Agriculture implementing cannabis policies, we can expect increased interest from outside the industry in research and development of cannabis-based drugs. This will lead to a medical market with more targeted medicine with precise dosing. We can expect more physicians to gain comfort in treating ailments with cannabis as well.

The recreational market will expand greatly with normalized commerce, enabling larger cultivation operations and infused products brands could grow to the national scale with interstate commerce.

CIJ: Where do you see the industry going long term?

Matt: When the cannabis industry matures down the road, we can expect multiple offshoots occurring. The recreational industry will involve local, regional and national policy much like the alcohol industry, and will likely resemble a liquor store model with individual “mom and pop” type businesses.

We anticipate that the medical market will recalibrate as more targeted products with precise dosing and efficacy are developed. At that point it will experience increased competition and consolidation. Without medical research and clinical trials, we cannot accurately project the growth of the medical sector.

Regulations involving tax revenue will most likely use a similar mechanism that states use for alcohol and tobacco taxation. Entities like state liquor control boards will oversee cannabis regulations. When that time comes, the cannabis industry will no longer be a novel idea and will become another conventional ‘consumer staple.’