Only 24.4% of Cannabis Operators Profitable Due to 280E, Other Challenges

Only 24.4% of Cannabis Operators Profitable Due to 280E, Other Challenges


A new report on the U.S. cannabis market is making the rounds, and paints a pretty dire picture of where the industry is today economically, with just 24.4% of survey respondents saying their business is profitable. High Times recently sat down with Beau Whitney, the CEO of Whitney Economics, who headed up the economic analysis of the data their survey found to get a more complete picture. 

No Longer Able to ‘Work from Stoned’ Harms Cannabis Economy

You might remember when the COVID-19 pandemic started in the spring of 2020, many states said cannabis was an essential industry that couldn’t be closed down and cannabis sales were “booming.” Unfortunately, behavioral changes after the pandemic have taken a toll. “People could no longer Work from Stoned,” which Beau said “hurt the industry at a time when they needed more revenue but [received] less.” While Whitney’s data found that just ten out of 36 state markets were not growing, “The growth is coming from states that just launched, and while they are growing, it is a much smaller chunk of the total cannabis market.” The ten states that weren’t growing included large, mature markets like Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. 

Oregon: Regional Bias or a Harbinger of Things to Come?

The report admits there was a “strong regional bias, as Oregon-based respondents made up nearly 90% of the total.” That means that out of the 224 responses received, just 24 were from operators outside of Oregon. As any longtime observer of cannabis markets will note, Oregon’s cannabis economy has been struggling for over half a decade, to the point where many cannabis cultivators jumped into the hemp market. As Beau lives in Oregon, he is no stranger to the struggles of their local cannabis industry and made many attempts to control for the regional bias in the responses they received by triangulating the data – using more than one data point. 

“I do a lot of expert witness testimony and have been doing individual state-level research,’ said Beau, which is why he knows “Michigan is mirroring Oregon, with too much capacity, too much supply, and a strong illicit market.” Beyond his research, Beau followed up on the survey by “calling business leaders.” All of the data from states less represented in the survey “indicated that Oregon was a harbinger of things to come.”

Plans for Next Year’s Survey

Their first two years, Whitney created an annual report, but they are trying “to go from an annual to a quarterly survey.” As a result, Beau said they “will likely trim down the number of questions.” 

The reason why there was such a strong representation of Oregon-based operators is that Oregon’s cannabis regulators sent the survey out directly to their licensees. Other than Oregon, the only two states where they had such strong regulator participation were Washington and, surprisingly, South Dakota. Next year will be a different story. Beau now has stronger relations with the Michigan regulators, expects more support from Colorado regulators, and has better relationships with business leaders in Florida; all states that were notable omissions in this year’s data. Beau also mentioned that “the Cannabis Regulators Association (CANNRA) sees a lot more value in this data and supports me more than they did previously,” and their support could help expand his available pool of data significantly. 

Necessary Reforms to Save the Industry

The key factors limiting growth are IRS tax code 280E, “a lack of access to banking, a limited demand market because supply and demand are all in one state, and the influence of the illicit market.” Whitney’s survey data and Beau’s personal research have revealed some policy reforms that could save the cannabis industry. Beau’s top policy solutions are safe banking, which “lowers the cost of capital,” 280E reform, which would relieve “up to 70% taxes in some cases,” and opening up interstate commerce to deal with imbalances of supply and demand. Beau did an analysis of 280E taxes earlier this year and found that “the cannabis industry paid $1.8 billion more in taxes than if they had been treated like any other business.” 

Beau put in practical terms, “There is a threshold for economic viability that must be met to account for product acquisition, labor, and federal taxes.” He pegged that threshold at around $2.5 million a year currently, but with 280E reform that threshold goes down to $1.5 million, which greatly raises the chance for success. “280E is doing exactly what it was supposed to do when it was designed 40 years ago,” said Beau, which is to make it impossible to run a business profiting from the sale of federally illegal drugs. Beau cautions that “while it sounds doom and gloom,” and he doesn’t anticipate growth until the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates, the businesses that survive “will thrive in 2025 when growth takes off again.”


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