Counting on Cannabis
How CPAs and financial professionals can navigate the fast-changing world of weed.
On Jan. 1, 2020, a near-lifetime ago given the explosive health and
economic developments since, Illinois became the 11th state to
legalize recreational cannabis for adult use. Compared to the
COVID-19 pandemic ravaging industries and markets across the
globe since March, dispensary-sold recreational cannabis seemed
destined for mid- to low-point status in Illinois’ economic yearbook—
except for one thing.
All that money.
According to the most recent numbers, in the first four months of
2020—including the April lockdown month where monthly sales
were the highest on record yet—Illinois dispensaries sold nearly
$150 million of legal recreational cannabis.
That’s $150 million of recreational weed from roughly 50 licensed
sellers, with a planned 75 more on the way in the coming months.
In 2019, estimates put the size of Illinois’ total recreational cannabis
business at $2 billion. Yet, for Illinois accounting firms, there’s much
more to serving this industry than simply taking on a rich new vein
of business. Even though two-thirds of Americans support
marijuana legalization, in accounting, cannabis is complicated.
“Even as federal legalization has gotten closer, ethical, cultural, and
promotional dilemmas have always defined cannabis work within
the accounting industry,” explains Nathan M. Summers, CPA,
principal with Miller Cooper & Co. “Cannabis is still illegal on the
federal level as it is classified as a Schedule 1 substance, and while
any businesses touching the plant itself may be completely legal
in Illinois, they’re currently breaking federal law. That has tax
implications, and most importantly, it means federal banks still can’t
get involved for business or payment services, so these are
primarily cash businesses.”
Add a complex tax and regulatory framework that’s still in flux,
potential PR risk to firms, and a considerable need for cannabis
industry expertise within the accounting industry itself, and
Summers concludes there are “real challenges for firms new to the
However, whatever the obstacles in this fast-moving industry, firms
shouldn’t rule out a business with a controversial history. Besides
the current boom in recreational weed, cannabis businesses may
open opportunities in agriculture, textiles, food, beverage, and
consumer products, and eventually a more conventional financial
and supply chain ecosystem for such businesses to operate in. And
it should be noted that many of the dispensaries now in Illinois’ legal
recreational cannabis business have been selling medical
marijuana since late 2015.
In short, Summers says now might not be a bad time to get in on
the ground floor.
Right now, the market for state-by-state legal recreational cannabis
is eye-popping. In 2019 alone, the industry jumped nearly 46
percent to $14.9 billion in sales after a relatively modest 17 percent
jump in 2018, and global consumer spending for cannabis flower
(the smokable part of the cannabis plant) as well as extracts from
other parts of the plant are projected to hit $32 billion by 2022,
according to a January report from Arcview Group and BDS
Analytics. With those projections and the shifting political
landscape, 2020 could be a pivotal year for cannabis.
“With this being an election year, we’re not likely to see any major
changes to cannabis legislation in the next quarter,” Summers
predicts. “But if you get a new regime in Washington, I think things
could change very quickly.”
Even so, there are several developments—some very recent—that
could have a wide-ranging impact on new and future cannabis
WHAT TO WATCH
Increased Federal Scrutiny
In late March, the U.S. Treasury General for Tax Administration
released a report with a straightforward title: “The Growth of the
Marijuana Industry Warrants Increased Tax Compliance Efforts and
Additional Guidance.” In it, the agency recommended that the IRS
develop a “comprehensive compliance approach for the marijuana
industry” that zeroes in on how cannabis companies have been
improperly reporting business deductions and credits under
Internal Revenue Code Section 280E covering “expenditures in
connection with the illegal sale of drugs.” In other words, cannabis
companies can expect more audits.
“This is definitely the biggest hot-button issue in the industry right
now, as it potentially may disallow deduction of virtually all cannabis
companies’ operating expenses,” Summers says. Under Section
280E, cannabis companies generally are limited to deducting only
their cost of goods sold.
Summers notes that there’s “a handful of companies” in the industry
that may be found to have significant tax liabilities as a result of not
understanding this rule: “I think it is critical for CPAs to have a
thorough understanding of how 280E applies to the cannabis
industry now and to watch for future changes regarding legalization
at the federal level, as well as staying current on IRS court cases.”
The Banking Access Problem
Due to marijuana’s Schedule 1 drug status, conventional banks are
restricted from taking on cannabis companies as business clients
for regular banking services essential to most companies, such as
business and payroll accounts as well as credit card acceptance
for B2B and B2C sales.
That’s why cannabis remains largely a cash business and a red flag
for the IRS. Until federal law addresses the situation, alternative
banking solutions remain speculative, with some advocates even
promoting cryptocurrency-based systems as a way to manage all
However, there is action in Washington on the cannabis industry
and its access to the traditional banking system, and it’s at the top
of the legislative pipeline. The question is whether the political
environment will change enough to get it across the finish line.
Michael R. Hartley, audit quality leader at Crowe LLP, points to two
key bills that could change everything—the STATES Act, which
would recognize legalized cannabis industries at the state level,
and the SAFE Banking Act, which would finally allow federal banks
to extend services more easily to the cannabis industry.
“Essentially, SAFE would allow cannabis companies to deposit
money in a conventional bank, which would be an enormous
breakthrough,” Hartley says. “However, unless marijuana gets off
Schedule 1, you’re not likely to see a lot of change, either in the
Senate or at the IRS.”
Most experts don’t expect movement before January 2021, when
an incoming Democratic president could signal federal legalization
soon. But even if President Trump wins a second term, Attorney
General William Barr signaled during his confirmation process in
2019 that he did not intend to crack down on legal cannabis like
his predecessor Jeff Sessions.
As all businesses are operating now with some form of pandemic
filter, cannabis companies large and small are dealing with common
issues that involve access to capital and product shortages. For
CPAs seeking insight into pandemic-related challenges, current
public cannabis companies offer a high-level view of the industry.
These companies are facing a range of issues related to financing,
investment, product cultivation, valuation, and availability, as well
as M&A interest from established food, beverage, and tobacco
conglomerates looking to the future.
The Valuation Vacuum
Hartley and Summers point out that product valuation skills will
become increasingly important in the cannabis industry as it
diversifies. Summers says there’s never been a call for historical or
benchmarking data in this area before, but CPAs will need it. “You
have live plants that certainly add levels of complexity to valuing
inventory, and there’s a need for expertise,” Summers explains.
“The question is, who will become the valuation experts in this now legal
industry and how those services will be provided?”
THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Accounting firms take on lines of business with varying levels of
complexity and controversy every day. Yet, even as cannabis goes
mainstream, most experts suggest that leadership, rank-and-file,
and even key clients should take part in the earliest discussions of
whether providing accounting, tax, audit, or other services to this
industry is right for the firm.
Here are some questions Illinois CPAs should consider before they
take on cannabis clients.
Working With Regulators
As long as marijuana is grouped with cocaine and heroin as a
Schedule 1 drug, CPAs should carefully consider the position of
state accounting boards, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the
Department of Justice, and other regulatory bodies before wading
into weed. While Chicago and Illinois might welcome cannabis
businesses, oversight isn’t so lenient at the federal level.
Considering the Risks
Accountants should also ask themselves if their firms are likely to
face any additional risks for getting into this business. Potential new
danger spots include reputational, financial, or legal risk, effects to
malpractice or professional liability insurance, and risks of being
disciplined or sanctioned.
It can be helpful to take a look around and see how other CPAs are
navigating these issues. Accountants can examine the services
other Illinois CPAs are offering cannabis businesses, or even reach
out to firms in other states to see how they’ve prevented missteps
and what growth opportunities they’ve seen.
Considering the Fit for the Firm
Taking on a new and complicated line of business could potentially
have major impacts for any firm. Firms as a whole should have an
appropriate level of expertise before entering the cannabis
industry. Even if taking on cannabis clients is an unmitigated win, it
can change the culture of the firm and the kind of future hires the
firm needs. Firms should consider the changes even a best-case
scenario could bring and enter the field with a strategy for which
services they hope to provide and the long-term growth they hope
Summers thinks cannabis is a promising business for CPA firms that
are willing to build the time, expertise, and human talent necessary
to making it a success.
“We’re going to need CPAs who think outside the box, get creative,
and adapt quickly. This industry is moving at 300 miles per hour
and often the accounting function is in the right-hand lane going
50,” Summers says. “For some firms, this won’t be the right
business. For others that keep up with the details and complex
nature of it, there will be opportunities.”