A California-based medical marijuana dispensary corporation’s motion for summary judgment challenging the constitutionality of Code Sec. 280E was denied. The Tax Court also addressed whether Code Sec. 280E applies to marijuana businesses legally operating under state (California) law, and whether the prohibition on deductions is limited to ordinary and necessary business expenses.
Congress enacted Code Sec. 280E after the court had allowed certain deductions for expenses incurred in connection with an illegal drug trade. Generally, Code Sec. 280E disallows any deductions attributable to a taxpayer’s illegal drug related trade or business. Taxpayers may reduce their income by the cost of goods sold (COGS), and Code Sec. 280E does not generally disallow deductions attributable to a taxpayer’s non-drug-related business.
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits excessive fines or penalties. The dispensary in this case claimed that Code Sec. 280E is a punitive provision that violates the Eighth Amendment. However, because Congress generally has the power to levy taxes under the Sixteenth Amendment, the Tax Court found that the law’s denial of certain deductions cannot be construed as a penalty.
Legality Under State Law
The dispensary also argued that its actions could not be considered “trafficking” for purposes of Code Sec. 280E because its activities were not illegal under California law. The court noted that because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance and is banned under federal law, the application of Code Sec. 280E does not depend on the legality of marijuana sales under California law.
Finally, the dispensary argued that Code Sec. 280E only applies to deductions under Code Sec. 162, and that other deductions such as those under Code Secs. 164 and 167 should be permitted. However, the text of Code Sec. 280E broadly states that “no deduction or credit shall be allowed.” It does not limit the deductions to those claimed under Code Sec. 162.
The Tax Court decision included several concurring and dissenting opinions, which primarily addressed the issue as to whether Code Sec. 280E is in fact a penalty provision that would violate the Eighth Amendment.
The dissenting opinions found that Code Sec. 280E is punitive in nature. One dissenter noted that rather than specify a narrow range of disallowed expenses, Code Sec. 280E attacks the entire marijuana industry with a broad denial of otherwise allowable deductions. The opinion stated that Congress passed Code Sec. 280E order to deter the sale of controlled substances and to penalize the drug trade. That intent was found to be “clearly in the nature of a penalty.” Both dissents concluded with two additional questions, which the dissenters felt need to be addressed:
- Is the punitive nature of Code Sec. 280E excessive to the point where it violates the Eighth Amendment?, and
- Does the Eighth Amendment apply to corporation taxpayers?