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Some Aren't Stoked About New Tax


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Board of Equalization targets medical marijuana sales; some retailers approve, others wary of federal meddling.

When it comes to the sale of medical marijuana, California is seeing green.

For the first time since voters passed Proposition 215 more than a decade ago, state tax assessors are reaching out to the state's estimated 150 to 200 medical marijuana retailers to get them to pay their state and local sales taxes.

In February, the state Board of Equalization sent out a special notice to sellers of medical marijuana, urging them to obtain a seller's permit like any other retailer.

"If you sell medical marijuana, your sales in California are generally subject to tax and you are required to hold a seller's permit," according to the notice.

It goes on to warn sellers that "if you do not obtain a seller's permit or fail to report and pay the taxes due, you will be subject to interest and penalty charges."

Proponents of the move say the outreach effort could help legitimize medical marijuana stores by giving them the same rights and responsibilities as any other retailer. Yet it's causing a lot of consternation among cannabis club owners and medical marijuana advocates.

While some cannabis club owners want to be "good neighbors" and pay the sales tax, others prefer to stay underground for fear that any tax information they report will be used against them by federal drug enforcement officials.

"It's frustrating," said Chris Moscone, an attorney representing the Hemp Center, a San Francisco dispensary currently negotiating with state tax collectors on paying back taxes. "There are basically two camps: Those that want to be treated like legitimate businesses, and the other side, where they're still rebels and don't want to be taxed."

When Californians passed the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, or Proposition 215, decriminalizing the use of marijuana at the recommendation of a doctor, the law failed to address how the state should deal with medical marijuana sales.

In early 2005, Board of Equalization Chairwoman Betty Yee said the board took up the Hemp Center's case and soon realized an inconsistency in the law. While the shop had been paying taxes on T-shirts, hats, pipes and other consumption devices, it did not pay taxes on medical marijuana.

The board ultimately determined that medical marijuana was subject to the sales tax because it is not dispensed by a pharmacist or approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"For the Board of Equalization, any tangible personal property not exempt from tax is subject to a sales tax," Yee said.

To bring medical marijuana retailers into compliance, the board updated its guidelines to allow them to obtain a seller's permit. Previously, the state banned people selling illegal items from getting permits.

The board also changed the permit application so that retailers wouldn't have to disclose what they were selling, making it difficult to track sales. Instead, medical marijuana sellers would have to sign a waiver.

State officials estimate there are about 150 clubs or centers selling medical marijuana throughout the state. Advocates say there are likely more than 200. Of those, the state found only 27 held seller's permits.

So far, state tax officials say there's a healthy level of interest, but it's unclear whether compliance has improved.

Medical marijuana advocates say they remain wary of the changes because federal drug enforcement officials can still pull state tax records. The state law conflicts with federal law, which considers marijuana an illicit drug.

"It's not black-or-white," said Ryan Landers, a spokesman for Sacramento-area medical marijuana retailers and one of the original proponents of Proposition 215. "It's a gray market."

Kris Hermes, legal campaign director of Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group, said the compliance rate might improve if the state started collecting taxes when a seller signs up for a permit. Right now, the board has the authority to to collect back taxes as far as eight years.

"If they started collecting taxes when they sign up for seller's permits, that would reduce anxiety for many of these providers," Hermes said. "And it would probably increase the level of participation in the state."

Yee, the board chairwoman, says that's not an option because the state treats everybody the same.

Advocates also are frustrated with the state's case-by-case enforcement approach, which tends to single out established stores.

"The Board of Equalization is way behind as far as knowing who's out there," said Moscone. "There's not enough manpower to keep up with these clubs, let alone any business."

It's unclear how much the state could generate from the sale of medical marijuana.

According to tax collectors, the state could generate $700 million in annual state and local sales tax revenue if Californians paid tax on all illicit drugs.

Based on the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Californians spent about $7.8 billion on illicit drugs in 2000. Of that, about $1 billion is spent on illicit marijuana.

The issue of permits remains spotty for cannabis clubs.

Hermes, of Safe Access, said some advocates have been willing to absorb the tax while others are considering challenging the levy.

Representatives of cannabis clubs in the Sacramento area say they are trying to gain legitimacy as retailers by paying for employee health care and self-mandating the use of security guards at stores.

Nathan Sands, of the Sacramento chapter of the Compassionate Coalition, said the region's eight or nine medical marijuana retailers all pay sales tax. A sufferer of chronic nausea, Sands noted that the sales tax is displayed on jars of medical marijuana he buys from a local dispensary.

Landers agreed. "We've worked hard to make sure the clubs act like a good neighbor," he said. "We think if you pay your taxes, you're going to be looked upon a lot different."

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: The Sacramento Bee (CA)
Author: Judy Lin
Contact: jlin@sacbee.com
Copyright: 2007 The Sacramento Bee
Website: sacbee.com


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City of Oakland already taxes MMJ sales.. I wonder if this would be a double sales tax in Oakland with the new assessment by FTB.

Well, one way to deal with it.. no more meds from Oaktown.

Keith Lake

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420 Staff
For the first time since voters passed Proposition 215 more than a decade ago, state tax assessors are reaching out to the state's estimated 150 to 200 medical marijuana retailers to get them to pay their state and local sales taxes.

I don't think this is all bad.

For one, it's what many have been asking for "tax and regulate", though ideally, it would come with legalization.

I think it's a good thing for the gov to get used to the new revenue stream. The perfect irony - hooked on drug (money).

Would be a critical step towards legalization in my view


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The perfect irony - hooked on drug (money)

State of California is hooked on all sources of income.. like every state in the world. Took them 10 years before they saw medical cannabis as a viable revenue source.

Their reasoning.. while not denying that it is a medicine, medical cannabis is not dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.. therefore it can and will be taxed.. that's fair.

At the same time I wonder.. if over-the-counter drugs can now be purchased with pre-tax dollars through flexible spending accounts (FSAs), will medical marijuana fall into the same category? That would be fair also. :3: :peace:
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