The tea party has company. For the past several years, the Internal Revenue Service has been systematically targeting medical marijuana establishments, relying on an obscure statute that gives the taxing agency unintended power. The IRS has been functioning as an arm of justice, employing the U.S. tax code as a weapon in the federal government's ongoing war against legal cannabis.
The majority of Americans favor legalization of marijuana, while 18 states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana. But pot businesses in those states are vulnerable to the federal government's strategic application of IRS Code Section 280E, a law enacted in 1982 after a drug dealer claimed his yacht and weapons purchases as legitimate business expenses -- and long before medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996.
Now the IRS is applying a rule originally aimed at illegal (and often violent) drug trafficking to businesses that are entirely legal under their states' laws. Medical marijuana dispensaries are facing audits and heavy tax bills that could force them out of business.
"Whether or not this is a coordinated tactic to try and shut down the industry, or send a chill through the industry, or if it's just the IRS trying to collect as much revenue as they can from easy targets, it's clearly outside the spirit and intent of the law," said Kris Krane, a former executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy who now serves as principal of 4Front Advisors, a medical marijuana dispensary consulting firm.
According to the Treasury Department, Section 280E disallows "deductions incurred in the trade or business of trafficking in controlled substances." Individuals involved in the sale of controlled substances -- including marijuana -- may not deduct standard business expenses from their federal taxes. That means, unlike other small businesses, medical marijuana dispensaries can't write off the cost of rent, payroll, product or advertising. As a result, stores that might not even be profitable can end up being taxed out of business.
"Section 280E was passed by Congress to deprive drug dealers on corners from deducting their expenses," said Henry Wykowski, a defense lawyer who represents dozens of dispensaries under audit in California. "The IRS is using this law in a way it was never intended to be used."
When asked about the agency's application of 280E to and auditing of medical marijuana dispensaries, IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland referred to a 2010 memo the IRS sent to members of Congress, which states that "neither section 280E nor the Controlled Substances Act makes exception for medically necessary marijuana."
In California, Harborside Health Center is currently fighting the IRS' claim that the Oakland dispensary owes more than $2 million in back taxes from 2007 to 2008. Other dispensaries, like the Vapor Room in San Francisco, which was also asked to cough up millions in back taxes, have shuttered as a result. In 2012, the federal government's raid of Oaksterdam University, a cannabis trade school in Northern California, was carried out by the IRS along with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
While the Obama administration has made headlines with high-profile raids on dispensaries in California, Washington, Montana and other states, its financial attacks on the medical marijuana industry are taking place largely out of public view.
"It's not as shocking as a SWAT team raiding the [medical cannabis] facilities," said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group comprising marijuana business professionals that works to reform business regulations and legitimize the country's marijuana industry. He said IRS audits, in comparison to clamorous DEA raids, have become a silent killer for the industry.
"Attacking state-legal businesses is extremely unpopular, but in doing so through financial means, they're able to undermine state medical marijuana laws without drawing as much ire from the voters," Smith said.
Dona Frank, who owns multiple medical marijuana facilities in California, said that while the IRS audits may spare the public the sight of masked law enforcement officers carrying assault weapons, the scrutiny is no less intimidating to the business owners being targeted.
"Who doesn't get scared when they get a letter from the IRS?" she said. "They've audited every business that I've had." Frank said her most recent IRS audits began this past September and that the IRS informed her recently that the agency was applying 280E.
The irony, Wykowski said, is that the IRS has only focused on the dispensaries filing federal tax returns. In other words, state-legal businesses trying to follow the law end up being punished for doing so. "The result is, unfortunately, you're better off not filing," Wykowski said.
The IRS' pursuit of medical marijuana dispensaries began during the Bush administration. In 2007, Wykowski represented Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems, a San Francisco dispensary, in its appeal of a 2005 IRS audit. That case established that the federal government could apply 280E to medical cannabis businesses.
In subsequent cases, marijuana dispensaries have sought to carve out exceptions for the parts of their businesses, like caregiving services, that are not covered by the Controlled Substances Act. By and large, the courts have sided with the federal government.
So medical marijuana advocates are looking to Congress to change the law. In 2011, legislation to amend 280E was introduced in the House but died in committee. Now, as medical marijuana has gained even greater acceptance -- and after two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational pot -- supporters are trying again.
The National Cannabis Industry Association is pushing Congress to carve out exemptions for marijuana businesses so they can take deductions like anybody else operating in compliance with state and local law. The group is hosting an industry lobby day in Washington, D.C., next month, during which marijuana business owners from across the country will meet with lawmakers and press their case.
The 280E Reform Campaign, an association ally, was also recently formed to spearhead a focused effort against IRS targeting of marijuana businesses and offer guidance for dispensaries on the process of filing federal income tax returns. The group hosts seminars around the country to educate dispensary owners and other cannabis industry professionals about 280E and to teach strategies for navigating IRS audits.
Wykowski said that the IRS hides behind the argument, "If you want to change it, go to Congress, not to us," arguing that the IRS has the power to promulgate industry guidelines that could mitigate the situation.
But unless the IRS changes its stance on medical marijuana, or Congress or the president forces a change, individual dispensary owners are likely to continue to be targets.
"The auditing of dispensaries by the IRS is unfair and unreasonable and should be of concern to everybody," Wykowski said. "If they can do it to one group, they can do it to any group. ... A dispensary wins if they get treated like any other taxpayer."
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Former President Bill Clinton
Bill "Didn't Inhale" Clinton has supported decriminalizing marijuana for more than a decade and more recently has spoken out against the war on drugs. “I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be," he said back in 2000 in an <a href="http://norml.org/news/2000/12/07/president-clinton-states-marijuana-should-be-decriminalized" target="_blank">interview with Rolling Stone</a>. "We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment.” He's since spoken about the issue of marijuana and drug prohibition a number of times. Last year, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-angell/bill-clinton-drug-war_b_2271885.html" target="_blank">he appeared</a> in the documentary, "Breaking the Taboo," where he argued that the war on drugs has been a failure.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Paul exhibited his libertarian tendencies earlier this year when he explained that he'd favor reforming marijuana laws to either decriminalize or reduce penalties for possession. “I don't want to promote that but I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake," Paul <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/24/rand-paul-marijuana_n_2945307.html" target="_blank">said</a>. "There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on in their twenties they grow up and get married and they quit doing things like this. I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives."
Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
As a congressman, Paul took his opposition to marijuana and drug prohibition a step farther than his son has so far. He supported a number of bills that would have removed the plant from its current status as a Schedule I substance under federal law, where it is considered alongside heroin and PCP. Because his history on the topic is so expansive, just take a look at the video to the left for a selection of his comments.
Evangelist Pat Robertson
While the 83-year-old Robertson may say a lot of things that make him sound like a kooky old man, he's also made a few remarks to endear himself to marijuana advocates. "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol," Robertson said in an <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/08/us/pat-robertson-backs-legalizing-marijuana.html" target="_blank">interview with The New York Times</a> in 2012. "I've never used marijuana and I don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded." Robertson has made similar remarks on his "700 Club" show before, but the Times, like many others, perhaps felt they must have misheard him.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
In a state of the city address earlier this year, Bloomberg made it clear that he supported a <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/press/01092013sostranscript" target="_blank">promise</a> by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to push marijuana decriminalization. "I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it." A <a href="http://gothamist.com/2013/03/22/nyc_marijuana_reform_hits_pot_hole.php" target="_blank">similar effort specific to NYC</a> has made some progress, but faces an unclear path forward with New York lawmakers.
Actor Bryan Cranston
Some may think of Cranston as more of a meth guy thanks to Walter White, his character on AMC's hit show "Breaking Bad," but in real life he's spoken out against current pot laws, suggesting that recreational marijuana use isn't a big deal -- and shouldn't be treated like it. “[T]o me, marijuana is no different than wine," he said in an <a href="http://hightimes.com/read/high-times-interview-bryan-cransto" target="_blank">interview with High Times</a>. "It's a drug of choice. It's meant to alter your current state -- and that's not a bad thing. It's ridiculous that marijuana is still illegal. We're still fighting for it ... It comes down to individual decision-making. There are millions of people who smoke pot on a social basis and don't become criminals. So stop with that argument -- it doesn't work.” <a href="http://marijuanamajority.com/?id=72" target="_blank">[H/T Marijuana Majority]</a>
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R)
Unlike many politicians, Johnson, a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2012, has <a href="http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/meet-gary-johnson-ron-paul-2012_520775.html" target="_blank">unabashedly admitted using marijuana</a>. But beyond his personal history with pot, he's been an outspoken advocate for legalizing and taxing it. From his <a href="https://www.garyjohnson2012.com/issues/drug-policy-reform" target="_blank">campaign platform</a>: "By managing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco - regulating, taxing and enforcing its lawful use - America will be better off. The billions saved on marijuana interdiction, along with the billions captured as legal revenue, can be redirected against the individuals committing real crimes against society."
Author Stephen King
King hasn't been shy about advocating for a legal marijuana industry that could give easy access to recreational users and revenue to the states. “Marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry," he said in an interview with <a href="http://hightimes.com/read/interview-stephen-king-1981" target="_blank">High Times</a>. "My wife says, and I agree with her, that what would be really great for Maine would be to legalize dope completely and set up dope stores the way that there are state-run liquor stores.” <a href="http://marijuanamajority.com/?id=92" target="_blank">[H/T Marijuana Majority]</a>
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)
Rohrabacher is a co-sponsor of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/respect-state-marijuana-laws-act_n_3070501.html" target="_blank">"Respect State Marijuana Laws Act,"</a> which seeks to protect marijuana users or businesses acting legally according to state marijuana laws from being prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act. While marijuana has been made legal for various uses in a number of states, the Obama administration continues to enforce federal laws across the nation. This has led to numerous raids of marijuana-based businesses, as well as prosecutions of growers and other people involved in pot. Washington and Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/26/doj-marijuana-policy_n_2766959.html" target="_blank">have still not received information</a> from the federal government on how it intends to respond to their implementation of a legal pot economy.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)
Young is also a co-sponsor of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/respect-state-marijuana-laws-act_n_3070501.html" target="_blank">"Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."</a> Hopefully <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/29/don-young-apology_n_2978242.html" target="_blank">he'll choose his words carefully</a> when explaining who he thinks should grow marijuana.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
Amash is also a co-sponsor of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/respect-state-marijuana-laws-act_n_3070501.html" target="_blank">"Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."</a>
Conservative Commentator Glenn Beck
Back in 2009, when Beck had a Fox News show, he suggested that marijuana legalization could be a worthwhile solution to raging drug violence on the nation's border with Mexico. "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana," he said. "We have to make a choice in this country. We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we're playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border."
Billionaire Richard Branson
From an <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-branson/to-win-the-drug-war-follow-the-states_b_1852870.html" target="_blank">op-ed by Branson</a> arguing for an end to the war on drugs: "Decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Portugal's 10 year experiment shows clearly that enough is enough. It is time to end the war on drugs worldwide. We must stop criminalising drug users. Health and treatment should be offered to drug users - not prison. Bad drugs policies affect literally hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities across the world. We need to provide medical help to those that have problematic use - not criminal retribution."
GOP Mega-Donor David Koch
Koch may have funneled countless dollars to conservative candidates who oppose reforming marijuana laws, but back in 1980, when he was the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, he <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=ueUCAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA18&dq=criminalst&pg=PA20#v=twopage&q&f=false" target="_blank">suggested</a> that it was "ridiculous" to consider people who smoked pot "criminals."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
In 2010, Perry told Jon Stewart that he believed in a federalist approach to marijuana laws -- that is, to allow states to determine their own approach and to tell the federal government to butt out.
Comedy Central's Jon Stewart
Stewart has made a habit of taking down politicians who exhibit an uncompromising stance on marijuana prohibition. In 2012, Stewart took New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to task for vetoing a marijuana decriminalization bill. “Alright, as much as I disagree, I don’t think marijuana should be illegal, but it is illegal on the federal level," Stewart began. "Christie is a former prosecutor, a man of conviction, of principle, doesn’t believe that the state should supersede federal law." The praise in the second sentence is a good sign that Stewart is about to shred Christie. Watch the rest of his takedown to the left.
Actor Jack Nicholson
In an <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350653/Jack-Nicholson-I-used-feel-irresistible-women-Not-more.html#ixzz24C0fOK6Q" target="_blank">interview with the UK's Daily Mail</a> in 2011, Nicholson said that he personally still used marijuana, before making the case for ending the prohibition on pot as well as other drugs. "I don't tend to say this publicly, but we can see it's a curative thing. The narcotics industry is also enormous. It funds terrorism and - this is a huge problem in America - fuels the foreign gangs," he said. "More than 85 percent of men incarcerated in America are on drug-related offences. It costs $40,000 a year for every prisoner. If they were really serious about the economy there would be a sensible discussion about legalization."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R)
In a 2013 <a href="http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/marriage-equality-is-a-conservative-cause485/" target="_blank">American Conservative op-ed</a> chock full of moderate Republican views, Huntsman snuck in a call to "applaud states that lead on reforming drug policy." While Obama and his <a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/04/17/drug-czar-no-state-can-nullify-federal-marijuana-ban/" target="_blank">administration</a> have responded to state marijuana reforms by saying they must enforce federal laws against marijuana, the president has the power to reschedule the drug, which would allow federal authorities to shift resources away from a prohibitive approach.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R)
Palin spoke out on marijuana in 2010, saying she didn't support legalizing it but also calling it a "minimal problem" for the nation. "However, I think we need to prioritize our law enforcement efforts," Palin said. "If somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society." While Obama has spoken repeatedly about not being interested in prosecuting small-time marijuana users, he hasn't done anything to prevent them from being busted by law enforcement in states where the drug is still illegal.
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel
Kimmel notably took a shot at Obama while serving as host of the 2012 White House Correspondents Dinner, questioning a continued marijuana crackdown under the president's administration. He then <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/28/jimmy-kimmel-whcd-pot_n_1462140.html" target="_blank">went on to say</a> that the issue of its continued illegality was a serious political concern for many Americans. <em>(Check out the video to the left.)</em>
Former President Jimmy Carter
Carter hasn't minced words in expressing his opposition to harsh marijuana and drug prohibition policies. In 2012, the former president <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/12/jimmy-carter-marijuana_n_2283989.html" target="_blank">said he was fine</a> with state legalization efforts, though he himself doesn't necessary support legalizing the drug. “As president 35 years ago I called for decriminalizing -- but not legalizing -- the possession of marijuana,” Carter <a href="http://cnsnews.com/news/article/jimmy-carter-decriminalize-pot" target="_blank">said</a>. “Since then, U.S. drug policies have been very horrible to our own country because of an explosion in prison populations.”
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli
A staunch conservative currently running for Virginia governor, Cuccinelli suggested earlier this year that he was "evolving" on marijuana legalization, and that he supported the rights of states to determine their own pot laws. "I don't have a problem with states experimenting with this sort of thing I think that's the role of states," Cuccinelli said, according to <a href="http://www.nbc12.com/story/21079505/cuccinelli-open-to-legalizing-marijuana" target="_blank">Ryan Nobles of WWBT</a>. For more on Cuccinelli's "evolving" views on pot, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/08/ken-cuccinelli-marijuana_n_2647028.html" target="_blank">click here</a>.
Columnist Dan Savage
Savage slammed Obama for perpetuating the war on drugs while on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" in 2009. “The proof will be in the policy. The war on drugs has gotten a really bad rap, when you ask people if they support the war on drugs they say no ... [Obama's] budget once again has the same old drug warrior policy ... I reject the assumption that everybody who is using drugs needs treatment or is an addict and needs to get arrested ... Not all drug use is abuse.” He's <a href="http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2011/06/02/the-war-on-drugs" target="_blank">kept up the fight</a> for drug policy reform since. <a href="http://marijuanamajority.com/?id=765" target="_blank">[H/T Marijuana Majority]</a>
MSNBC's Al Sharpton
Sharpton has repeatedly spoken out in favor of reforming drug laws. In 2011, he suggested that the nation had wasted trillions of dollars in an ill-fated effort that had weighed particularly heavily on the African American community. “We've been fighting the war on drugs since the '60s. And guess what? Trillions of dollars later, we are losing," Sharpton said during a segment on MSNBC. "When you look at the disparities in sentencing drug offenders, hasn't this kind of injustice undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system?” <a href="http://marijuanamajority.com/?id=430" target="_blank">[H/T Marijuana Majority]</a>
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)
Tancredo came out aggressively in favor of reforming marijuana laws in 2010, <a href="http://coloradoindependent.com/62723/tancredo-calls-for-legalizing-marijuana" target="_blank">telling the Colorado Independent</a> that the correct path forward was "Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it." Tancredo continued, “The arguments against marijuana today are the same as the arguments against liquor years ago.” Years later, the former congressman agreed to smoke pot on camera with a documentary filmmaker, a deal that he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/28/tom-tancredo-backs-out-of_n_2567360.html" target="_blank">later backed out of</a>.