Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Knowledge & Insights

Cannabis Business Taxes: A Comprehensive Guide ‍


Operating a legitimate cannabis business while navigating the intricate labyrinth of federal, state, and local taxes can be daunting. As the cannabis industry continues to evolve and expand, business owners must understand how to manage their business taxes properly. From federal tax code 280E to state and local taxes, the taxation landscape for cannabis businesses is complex and ever-changing. This comprehensive guide aims to shed light on the intricacies of cannabis business taxes and provide strategies for effective tax management. 

The Intricacies of Cannabis Business Taxes

The Federal Perspective: IRC Section 280E

The federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning that, despite its legalization in many states for medical and recreational use, it is considered illegal at the federal level. This classification has significant implications for cannabis businesses when it comes to taxation.

Under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E, businesses dealing with Schedule I or II substances are prohibited from deducting their business expenses from their taxable income. This tax code was enacted in 1982 primarily to prevent drug traffickers from claiming tax deductions. However, its impact is now felt by legal cannabis businesses, which are essentially treated as drug trafficking enterprises under federal law for tax purposes.

In practical terms, cannabis businesses are taxed on their gross profit rather than their net income. They can deduct the cost of goods sold (COGS), such as purchasing cannabis seeds and cultivation essentials. Still, they cannot deduct typical business expenses like rent, marketing, insurance, and employee wages. This results in cannabis businesses typically paying higher federal taxes than non-cannabis businesses generating the same revenue.

State and Local Taxes

On top of federal taxes, cannabis businesses also have to contend with many state and local taxes. These can vary significantly from state to state, including sales, excise, and specific cannabis taxes. For instance, in California, cannabis businesses pay a cultivation tax on flowers and leaves, a 15% excise tax on retail sales, and a state retail sales tax, among others. Colorado has a state sales tax on in-store sales, a state retail marijuana sales tax, an excise tax on wholesale sales or transfers, and a potential local option retail tax.

Further complicating matters, different states use different types of taxes on cannabis sales – percentage-of-price, weight-based, and potency-based taxes – and some even levy multiple kinds of taxes. Additionally, local governments in several states also impose their excise taxes on marijuana sales, typically as a percentage of the price.

The Impact of 280E on Cannabis Businesses

Financial Burden

One of the most significant impacts of IRC Section 280E is the financial burden it places on cannabis businesses. Because they cannot deduct most of their business expenses, these businesses often end up with a higher taxable income and, consequently, a higher tax bill. In some cases, the federal taxes they owe can even exceed their actual net income. This can severely strain their cash flow and hamper their ability to invest in business growth and expansion.

Operational Challenges

Beyond the financial strain, 280E also poses significant operational challenges for cannabis businesses. The inability to deduct common business expenses disincentivizes these businesses from investing in improvements that would otherwise be considered best business practices. This includes providing living wages, offering employee benefits, improving business premises, and contributing to community development initiatives. 

Compliance Issues

The tax code also creates complex compliance issues for cannabis businesses. Given the stringent restrictions and high stakes involved, these businesses need to maintain impeccable accounting records and be prepared for potential audits by the IRS. This requires rigorous tracking of all transactions, meticulous record-keeping, and retaining all receipts. Any failure to prove the validity of deductions could result in hefty fines and penalties from the IRS.

Navigating 280E: Strategies for Cannabis Businesses

While 280E presents formidable challenges, there are strategies that cannabis businesses can adopt to navigate this taxing hurdle effectively.

Maximizing Cost of Goods Sold Deductions

One key strategy is to maximize deductions for the cost of goods sold (COGS), which cannabis businesses are allowed to claim under 280E. These can include the direct costs associated with producing or acquiring cannabis, such as the cost of seeds, soil, water, and nutrients for cultivation. However, it’s important to note that not all costs related to the production or distribution of cannabis can be counted as COGS. For instance, indirect costs like rent, overhead, shipping, and marketing are not deductible.

Structuring the Business Strategically

Another strategy involves structuring the business to separate the activities susceptible to 280E from those that are not. For example, a business could be divided into two entities – one for producing and distributing cannabis (subject to 280E) and another for handling all other legal responsibilities, such as managing retail space, selling related merchandise, and providing care and counseling. This way, the second business can take all normal deductions for expenses like payroll, utilities, rent, and marketing.

Employing Accurate Record-Keeping and Labor Tracking

Accurate record-keeping and labor tracking can significantly help optimize labor deductions under 280E. By tracking time spent by employees on different tasks (for instance, cultivating versus selling), businesses can accurately allocate labor costs to COGS. Implementing efficient time and attendance software can significantly aid in this process.

State and Local Taxes: A Closer Look

While federal taxes can pose significant challenges for cannabis businesses, state, and local taxes are no less complex. Each state has its unique set of rules and rates, making it crucial for companies to fully understand their specific state’s tax requirements.

Different Types of State Taxes

The types of taxes levied by states on cannabis sales can vary widely. They usually fall into three categories: percentage-of-price taxes, weight-based taxes, and potency-based taxes.

  • Percentage-of-price taxes are the most common and are usually imposed as a sales tax or an excise tax on the retail price of cannabis products. These taxes are typically easy to administer but can result in fluctuating revenue as market prices change.
  • Weight-based taxes are levied on the weight of the cannabis product sold, irrespective of its price. These taxes provide more stable revenue but can encourage the sale of higher potency products, as they tax all products at the same rate regardless of potency.
  • Potency-based taxes are relatively new and are based on the level of THC (the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis) in the product. These taxes can discourage the use of higher potency products but can be more challenging to administer due to the difficulty in accurately measuring THC levels.


State-Specific Tax Examples 

Different states have adopted different combinations of these tax types. For instance, Alaska imposes an excise tax based on the weight of mature flowers or buds, trim, immature flowers or buds, and clones.

California levies a cultivation tax based on the weight of flowers, leaves, and fresh plant material. Additionally, there is a 15% excise tax on retail sales and a state retail sales tax. Meanwhile, Arizona imposes a 16% tax on sales of cannabis, in addition to a transaction privilege tax and a use tax.

Navigating State and Local Taxes

Understanding and complying with state and local tax requirements can be daunting for cannabis businesses, especially given the constant changes in laws and regulations. However, there are strategies that companies can adopt to navigate these taxes effectively.

Staying Updated with State Laws and Regulations

Keeping abreast of changes in state laws and regulations is crucial. This includes being aware of the types of taxes levied, the specific tax rates, the basis for these taxes (price, weight, or potency), and any changes or updates to these laws. Businesses can do this by regularly consulting with tax professionals, attending industry events, and subscribing to relevant industry newsletters.

Keeping Impeccable Records 

Like federal taxes, maintaining impeccable records is crucial regarding state and local taxes. Keep track of all sales, purchases, expenses, and tax payments. Businesses should also retain all receipts, invoices, and other relevant documents for at least three years, as most states have a three-year statute of limitations for tax audits.

Consulting with Tax Professionals

Work with tax professionals specializing in the cannabis industry. These professionals can provide valuable advice on structuring the business to minimize tax liabilities, ensure compliance with all tax laws and regulations, and help prepare for potential audits.

The Impact of State and Local Taxes on Cannabis Businesses

State and local taxes can significantly impact the bottom line of cannabis businesses. These taxes can add to the cost of doing business, reduce profitability, and potentially deter customers due to higher prices. However, they also serve a crucial role in supporting the legal cannabis industry and providing much-needed revenue for state and local governments.

Regulatory Impact

State and local taxes also play a crucial role in regulating the cannabis industry. They help ensure that businesses operate legally and ethically, and they provide a mechanism for governments to monitor and control the industry. However, these taxes can also create additional regulatory burdens for businesses, such as keeping detailed records and complying with complex tax codes.

Impact on Market Dynamics

In addition to impacting the financial and regulatory aspects of the cannabis industry, state, and local taxes can also influence market dynamics. For instance, high tax rates can discourage consumers from purchasing cannabis from legal cannabis retailers and drive them toward the illicit market. On the other hand, lower tax rates can encourage more consumers to buy from legal sources, helping grow the legal cannabis industry.

Future Outlook for Cannabis Business Taxes

As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, so too will the tax landscape. While the current tax regime poses significant challenges for cannabis businesses, there are opportunities for reform and improvement.

Potential Federal Tax Code Revisions

There is growing momentum for reforming federal tax laws to make them more favorable to the cannabis industry. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that have aimed to amend or repeal 280E, including the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act and the Small Business Tax Equity Act. If passed, the Small Business Tax Equity Act would significantly reduce the tax burden on cannabis businesses and make it easier for them to operate and grow. 

Possible Changes at the State and Local Level

Changes are also likely at the state and local levels as governments refine their tax policies to support the cannabis industry better. Some states are already considering changes to their tax structures, such as shifting from price-based taxes to weight or potency-based taxes. Others are looking at ways to lower tax rates to make legal cannabis more competitive with the illicit market.


Successfully navigating the complex world of cannabis business taxes requires a deep understanding of the tax laws at the federal, state, and local levels, meticulous record-keeping, and strategic business planning. 

While the current tax regime is challenging, there are opportunities for reform and improvement. By staying informed and proactive, cannabis businesses can survive and thrive in this evolving industry. Additionally, it’s never to early to start your year end tax planning. 

At GreenGrowth CPAs, we are dedicated to helping our clients optimize their tax payments. Before attempting to file taxes independently or relying on a CPA without cannabis industry knowledge, schedule a free consultation with our experts. We have the experience and expertise to navigate the complexities of cannabis taxation, ensuring you keep as much of your hard-earned money as possible.

Request a Free Consultation & learn how GreenGrowth CPA’s can help your business grow.

Let's Talk