Today let’s talk about Matthew Price, the Oregon marijuana businessman headed to jail for tax crimes. This story got a lot of coverage when it broke last month, partly because it was the first known tax-related prosecution for a licensed pot business owner, and partly because Price was fairly well known in Oregon. He once sat on an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) rules advisory committee for cannabis retail, and he owned three dispensaries. Seems like he was off to a pretty good start.
Well, not any longer. In addition to the seven-month lockup, Price was ordered to pay the I.R.S. $262,776 in restitution on the nearly $1 million in taxable income he raked in from 2011 to 2014. He will probably never be allowed to participate in the OLCC program again, given the agency’s recent tightening of the screws, and its authority to bar anyone with a federal conviction “substantially related to the fitness and ability of the applicant” to obtain a license.
Generally speaking, marijuana businesses are liable for lots of tax under IRC 280E. As cannabis business lawyers, we work with CPAs and others to attempt to mitigate our clients’ tax liability, but at the end of the day, that liability is always there. Tax obligations do not end at the federal level, of course: Most states have income tax programs, and all states with legal cannabis programs seem to collect additional taxes on the sale of marijuana. In Oregon, for example, that sales tax must be escrowed by OLCC retailers and paid to the state Department of Revenue. As to Matthew Price, the news reporting was silent on whether he was also shirking those payments.
Having advised state-legal cannabis businesses since 2010, we have seen a lot of monkey business when it comes to tax. We have seen bad lawyers advise clients not to pay taxes, on the theory that tax programs violate business owners’ rights against self-incrimination. We have seen businesses attempt to claim “non-profit” status and avoid taxes in that manner, despite the impossibility of receiving an I.R.S. exemption. And we’ve seen lots of “management company” schemes, most of which are nonsense. At the end of the day, a baseline level of tax is unavoidable.
Interestingly and appropriately, the judge in this case didn’t seem to treat Price differently because his income derived from cannabis sales. It was reported that federal prosecutors petitioned the judge to go hard on Price, in order to send a message to the marijuana industry. The judge wasn’t having that:
The fact that the product involved here is marijuana is utterly meaningless to me in passing a sentence,” the judge said. “It’s a tax case to me.”
That didn’t stop the Justice Department from bragging a bit, but it’s encouraging to see cannabis entrepreneurs being treated like everyone else — in theory, anyway — and for better or worse. On that point, we have often said on this blog that just because someone is violating one federal law by trading in cannabis, that doesn’t make it a good idea to violate all the others. And we always advise entrepreneurs to run their cannabis business like real businesses. That includes paying taxes.