On March 7, Sonoma County voters decide whether to hit local cannabis businesses in unincorporated pockets of the county with annual tax up to 10 percent of revenue. Santa Rosa plans a similar tax, slated for vote in June.
Cannabis growers and other operators who morph from illegal to legal operations and absorb tax burdens at local, state and federal levels will potentially see other operators who stay in black-market shadows gaining competitive advantages. Will they turn in competitors who shirk taxes?
That sticky business conundrum looms over the fast-growing cannabis industry now that statewide voters pushed it out of prohibition into legitimacy and created a taxation target for government.
Federal tax law allows whistleblowers to reap financial rewards for turning someone in (see sidebar below). There is no provision like that in cannabis tax plans proposed by Sonoma County or Santa Rosa. But businesses that pay the new cannabis taxes will have a strong incentive to rat out competitors who don’t pay and thereby gain unfair market advantage. Legitimate cannabis operators may report those that remain illegal.
“Absolutely,” said David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s director of planning and economic development, who is finalizing the city’s draft cannabis tax. “It’s already happening,” Guhin said. “I’m pretty blunt about it. I’ve spoken to the Sonoma County Grower’s Alliance — big rooms of people. Our best source of information will be people who are doing it right. It’s not fair. They know the industry better than I do. It’s happening already,” he said of local whistleblowers.
“I want to have a policy in place that people can go to,” Guhin said. “I need to provide a pathway first. Let people into that pathway that want to be part of our business in Santa Rosa. Those that choose not to do that, then we’ll act. Going after people left and right while we’re still in this mode, it’s too early. We’re aware of it,” he said of operators who may want to shirk the tax.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to encourage people to come in through this process,” he said. “We don’t want to push people into the black market. If we did that, we may as well just ban it (cannabis) — the approach some cities take (such as Rohnert Park and Petaluma).”
When cities place a ban on cannabis, “all that does is encourage that black market,” Guhin said.
“It’s not easy running a legitimate business,” Guhin said. “If a person makes amazing cookies in their kitchen, to go from that to creating a store downtown to sell them is a big jump. It takes capital, business acumen, employees and payroll. You have a whole different role you are entering into. That’s what we need” in the cannabis industry. “If we are serious about providing this type of medicine and this product to our community, we want to make sure it’s done in a legitimate, fair and safe way.”
The city’s new cannabis tax will target cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and dispensaries, but not testing and transportation services.
Sonoma County’s Measure A provides draconian penalties for a cannabis operator who “fails or refuses to pay any commercial cannabis business tax required to be paid,” with a penalty of 25 percent of the tax due, plus the tax and interest at 1.5 percent for the first month. If the tax remains unpaid more than a month past its due date, Measure A adds an additional 25 percent penalty then continuing interest at 1.5 percent per month (18 percent a year). For instance, a $100,000 unpaid cannabis tax two months overdue would incur a $50,000 penalty plus the tax due and $3,000 interest for a total of $153,000. Such penalties could cripple a non-compliant cannabis operator.
More coverage of cannabis commerce in the North Coast: nbbj.news/cannabis