The cannabis industry might be one of the largest industries in the next decade, but right now, it’s risky, expensive and faces uncertain legal and tax hurdles, says an accountant who specializes in the cannabis industry.
Matthew Foster CPA, a partner with Frazier & Deeter, LLC and the firm’s National Practice Leader for the Cannabis Industry, spoke about accounting and the cannabis industry earlier this year at the Georgia Association of Business Brokers.
“This is not an industry for the faint of heart,” warned Foster. “If you have a very low risk tolerance, I would just advise you to stop right now and wait until the feds open it up in about five or six years, possibly longer.”
The biggest risk? The whole industry is illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
“From a federal perspective, every one of these companies that are in cannabis are lawless citizens of the U.S.,” said Foster. “They’re all breaking the law.” Federal officials could “come in at any moment and break them up if they wanted to.”
If the company is in one of the many states that has legalized cannabis, most assume that federal officials won’t intervene, “unless they do something really out of line,” Foster said.
Georgia’s Cannabis industry
Georgia’s cannabis industry is poised for growth because the state recently passed a law legalizing the production and manufacturing of low THC CBD oil, defined as anything with a THC content of 5% or less. That’s just strong enough for medicinal use, and not strong enough for intoxication. The new law allows up to six licenses for growing medical marijuana, plus licenses to the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University for research.
Of the six private licenses, two will be for large productions, up to 100,000 square feet, and four for up to 50,000 square feet. There’s a $25,000 non-refundable application fee for a large license, along with an initial $200,000 licensing fee and $100,000 annual renewal fee. The smaller licenses carry a $5,000 non-refundable application fee, along with an initial $100,000 licensing fee and $50,000 annual renewal fee.
“So you need a lot of capital just to hold the license in Georgia,” Foster said. “That’s before you even start with the production and the costing and everything else.”
Recently Flourish, an Atlanta-based supply chain management startup that helps cannabis companies monitor logistics, raised $2.1 million in a seed round led by 7thirty Opportunity Fund, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported.
Georgia has made cannabis companies ineligible for any state tax incentives. “You are going to pay tax on every single dollar that you make here in Georgia,” Foster said.
Which means that companies in the cannabis industry right now must be highly capitalized. “You have to have a lot of money at your disposal to weather the storm until the feds open it up,” said Foster.
Frazier & Deeter works with clients to set up inventory methodologies that will move as many expenses as they can under current tax law from their overhead into the cost of inventory.
Another obstacle for the industry is banking. Under current laws, federally insured banks are not allowed to do business with cannabis companies.
“These companies can bank with state-sponsored banks, with credit unions, if those banks decide they want to work with this industry. But they can’t bank with FDIC-insured banking institutions, your Wells Fargo, your Bank of America, your Chase, because they are federally regulated,” Foster said.
Cannabis industry investors are lobbying legislators to pass a law that would make cannabis similar to hemp, which would open up a more traditional taxation and banking.
Foster predicted that Congress will act on banking before legalization because right now, the federal government is losing lots of potential tax revenue from the industry.
Cannabis VS Industrial Hemp
Cannabis and industrial hemp represent different segments of the market. For example, industrial hemp is becoming a very attractive option for people to invest in thanks to last November’s farm bill. The farm bill, in essence, descheduled industrial hemp, defined as a product with a less than 0.3% THC content per gram. Hemp fiber and oilseed can be used in variety of industrial and consumer products. What the bill did was deschedule hemp, meaning it’s still illegal at the federal level, unless you are producing and working in a state that has legalized industrial hemp.
Cannabis is still illegal from a federal standpoint, despite being legal for medicinal uses in 33 states and the District of Columbia, and in 11 states and D.C. for recreational uses. Because cannabis is included in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, it falls under section 280E of the IRS code. “That means cannabis businesses cannot deduct any necessary or ordinary business expenses for federal income tax purposes, nor can they claim any Federal credits,” Foster said.
“You can deduct your cost of goods sold, but everything else in your return is non-deductible,” Foster said. “You can’t have R&D credits, you can’t have business credits, and you can’t have jobs credits. Take your revenues, deduct your cost of goods sold, get your gross profit, and that’s your taxable income: your gross profit.”
But companies with shrewd accountants can take advantage of certain sections of the IRS code that allow companies to capitalize their overhead, which would allow them to deduct some of the expenses for rents, utilities, property taxes, salaries, depreciation, etc.
Managing Cannabis Finances
Foster recommends that their traditional cannabis clients do full financial statement audits which allows for an opinion on what’s capitalized into the cost of inventory and what’s being deducted as cost of goods sold. If the IRS does come in and audit, “we have a lot of support for the position that we have taken.”
Cannabis companies should NOT use the name of the plant in their company name, Foster recommended, to try to minimize the red flags that the IRS will see on these companies.
“First and foremost, the words cannabis, hemp, and marijuana should not appear on your tax return, anywhere,” said Foster.
Also, these companies should not get creative in taking deductions, Foster said. If you go that way, “start putting money aside because you’re going to get audited.”
He also recommends that anybody in this space should operate as a C Corp, mainly because it’s the lowest tax rate that you can find on federal level right now. Also a C Corp allows a company to “put up a corporate wall around your investors.”
If the IRS starts attacking the company, the investors are only out what they put into the company. It won’t be able to go after their personal assets. He also recommends portioning off different sections of the business into separate entities for real estate, equipment or intellectual property.
Potential Profits Huge
Returns on investment are a mystifying 10 to 30 multiples on revenue streams in the industry. “I haven’t quite figured out what’s going on in this space,” Foster said. “This must be Toad’s Wild Ride for investors.” But last year, a lot of people made a lot of money.
“So, it depends on when you get in, what you get in to, and how long you’re willing to ride this roller coaster,” Foster said.
Big U.S. companies are awaiting new banking regulations that will ease investment into this industry. Foster said “They’re either waiting to go public, or they’re waiting for big pharma, big tobacco, or big alcohol to come in and buy them up.”Read More