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Up in Smoke – Section 280E’s Buzz not Harsh by Excessive Fines Clause: Northern California Small Business Assistants, Inc. v Commissioner

A tax provision that blocks marijuana companies from claiming federal business tax deductions is constitutional ruled the U.S. Tax Court on October 23rd. Northerner California Small Business Assistants, Inc. v Commissioner, 153 TC No. 4 (No. 26889-16, October 23, 2019). […]


A tax provision that blocks marijuana companies from claiming federal business tax deductions is constitutional ruled the U.S. Tax Court on October 23rd. Northerner California Small Business Assistants, Inc. v Commissioner, 153 TC No. 4 (No. 26889-16, October 23, 2019).

Northern California Small Business Assistants, Inc., a California medical marijuana business, claimed $1.5 million in ordinary and necessary business expenses for its 2012 tax year. The IRS disallowed the company’s tax deductions under Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code. That provision blocks companies that are involved in drug trafficking from claiming business deductions and credit that are available to businesses not engaged in trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act).

Cannabis companies that are organized and operated legally under state law, face what amounts to a federal income tax on their gross receipts – with effective tax rates as high as 70% because for federal purposes, those companies are considered to be trafficking in the illegal drug trade. Some types of marijuana businesses are able to reduce the amount of their income subject to tax based on their inventory costs.

The Company claimed that Section 280E violated the prohibition on excessive fines contained in the Eighth Amendment. The Excessive Fines Clause guards against abuses of the government’s ability to punish civil or criminal infractions. Specifically the company argued that:

  • The Eighth Amendment applied to corporations,
  • That Section 280E operates as a penalty through the tax laws on the company’s gross receipts, and
  • That this “penalty” is excessive.

The Tax Court held, however, that Section 280E does not violate the Constitution because it is not a penalty provision. “Despite efforts by several States to legalize marijuana use to varying degrees, it remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance within the meaning of the Controlled Substance Act,” wrote Judge Joseph Goeke. “Unlike in other context where the Supreme Court has found a financial burden to be a penalty, disallowing a deduction from gross income is not a punishment,” said the Court. The court noted its holding was consistent with the only Circuit Court of Appeals decision on this point.

The company also argued that, assuming Section 280E is constitutional, that it should be applied more narrowly than as interpreted by the IRS.  According to the taxpayer, while Section 280E may be appropriately applied to limit ordinary and necessary business expenses, other provisions, such as depreciation deductions, and the deductions for state and local taxes should be excluded from Section 280E’s reach. The Tax Court declined this invitation, stating, “Congress could not have been clearer in drafting this section [280E] of the Code.”

Perhaps most interesting, is that there were two dissenting opinions. Judge Gustason, dissenting in part, wrote that he believed Section 280E unconstitutionally exceeded Congress’ power to impose an income tax under the Sixteenth Amendment. “I would hold that this wholesale disallowance of all deductions transforms the ostensible income tax into something that is not an income tax at all, but rather a tax on an amount greater than the taxpayer’s ‘income’.”

Judge Copeland, agreeing with Judge Gustafson’s dissent, also wrote a partial dissent of her own, insisting that Section 280E is a penalty and urging further analysis of whether it violates the Eighth Amendment.

Read full opinion here.


Fraser Trebilcock attorney Paul V. McCord has more than 20 years of tax litigation experience, including serving as a clerk on the U.S. Tax Court and as a judge of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. Paul has represented clients before the IRS, Michigan Department of Treasury, other state revenue departments and local units of government. He can be contacted at 517.377.0861 or pmccord@fraserlawfirm.com.