The IRS Did Not Violate the First Amendment in Declining to Exempt Organizations to Help Marijuana Dealers

By Ellen P. Aprill

Several commentators have called attention to the statement of the IRS in Revenue Procedure 2018-5, just reiterated in Rev. Proc. 2019-1, that it will not issue a determination letter recognizing exemption from income tax for “an organization whose purpose is directed to the improvement of business conditions of one or more lines of business relating to an activity involving controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law regardless of its legality under the law of the state in which such activity is conducted.”

These commentators suggest that this position could constitute impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.  I do not view the IRS announcement in this way. Instead, I see it as an application of the long-standing principle denying exemption to entities with an illegal purpose or engage primarily in illegal activities.

The illegality doctrine has long prevented exemption under section 501(c)(3), the category that encompasses what we generally call charities. In the words of Section 101(c) of the ALI Draft Restatement of the Law of Charitable Nonprofit Organizations, “[a] purpose is not charitable if it is not lawful, its performance requires the commission of criminal or tortious activity, or it is otherwise contrary to fundamental public policy.”  Continue reading “The IRS Did Not Violate the First Amendment in Declining to Exempt Organizations to Help Marijuana Dealers”

Tax Benefits of Government-Owned Marijuana Stores

By Benjamin Leff

I promise that I think about things other than marijuana, but if you’re following my posts on this blog so far, there is little evidence of that.  In 2014, I published Tax Planning for Marijuana Dealers, which argued that sellers of marijuana could qualify as tax-exempt organizations under section 501(c)(4), which would enable them to avoid a draconian federal tax created by IRC section 280E.  This article inspired a thoughtful response by fellow blogger Philip Hackney, in which Phil argued that such organizations cannot qualify for tax exemption.  Among other things, he argued that that the so-called public policy doctrine applies to (c)(4) organizations just as much as it applies to (c)(3)s.  We replayed some of our disagreement about the breadth of the public policy doctrine last month on this blog (here, here and here).  But now I’ve posted a new draft article that addresses the application of the public policy doctrine to independent government entities that are exempt from federal income tax under IRC section 115 instead of 501(c). Continue reading “Tax Benefits of Government-Owned Marijuana Stores”

More on Charitable Organizations and Marijuana

By Benjamin Leff

Last Friday, Phil Hackney posted on this blog about IRS Denial 201615018 (4/8/16), in which the IRS denied tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) to an organization that planned to support the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana in a state in which such activities were legal.  As Phil pointed out, the IRS held, among other things, that an organization whose purpose is the distribution of marijuana cannot be tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) because “a section 501(c)(3) organization cannot be created for a purpose that is illegal.”  This position is not new. The IRS took a similar position way back in 2012.

Phil and I pretty much agree about the law.  We both think that the IRS is probably right that under current law an organization whose charitable purpose includes engaging in illegal activities does not qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3).  Phil says that the law is “absolutely clear on this front,” which I think is a little bit of an overstatement, but that’s a quibble at best.  The reason for this certainty is that the United States Supreme Court has held that an organization that had racially discriminatory admissions or dating policies could not qualify for tax-exemption under the so-called public policy doctrine, a common-law doctrine that applies to charitable trusts.  The argument for denying tax-exemption for illegal activities is a part of the public policy doctrine, the rationale being that nothing more clearly defines a jurisdiction’s fundamental public policies than its laws, and so illegal activities must violate public policy

Phil and I also agree on the “enforcement approach” that should ideally underlie the public policy doctrine.  We agree that when the IRS is called upon to apply the public policy doctrine, it should do so according to the brightest possible lines.  It should maintain “hard and fast” rules.  That is because the room for abuse is so great in this area, since the suspect organizations are almost always advancing unpopular or counter-majoritarian values.

Where Phil and I disagree is whether “illegality” provides an adequately bright line to satisfy this enforcement approach.  I think that even where conduct is facially “illegal,” there is ambiguity about whether it violates a fundamental public policy, and the IRS should hesitate before making a decision on that score.  When it errs in applying the public policy doctrine, it should always err in favor of the organization.  That is because when an organization’s conduct is illegal, there is always another enforcement entity that is empowered to enforce the law and prevent the illegal conduct.  The IRS should grant tax-exempt status and then defer to the substantive enforcement entity to use whatever sanctions are at its disposal to enforce the law … if it chooses to do so.

Continue reading “More on Charitable Organizations and Marijuana”