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Unequal Ground: The Impact of Tax Code 280E on Minnesota's Cannabis Entrepreneurs and the Challenge for Social Equity Licenses

John Hayden - August 2, 2023

Minnesota's social equity licensing program represents an attempt to address the longstanding societal impacts of cannabis prohibition. However, aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs should be aware of a significant challenge lurking in the financial landscape: the federal Tax Code 280E. This tax code presents a formidable obstacle that may hinder the success of cannabis businesses, particularly for those awarded social equity licenses who do not have access to capital and expertise.

Tax Code 280E: A Daunting Financial Hurdle

Tax Code 280E was enacted in 1982 in response to a Minneapolis-based drug dealer who successfully deducted his drug-related business expenses (Forbes, 2021). It prohibits businesses dealing with Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substances, including cannabis, from claiming standard business deductions. The impact of this code can be devastating, especially for those entering the industry with a social equity license.

The Stark Reality of 280E

Nate Russell, founder of several cannabusinesses and an all around cannabis industry expert, illustrated the real-world impact of 280E in a LinkedIn post:

For Non-Cannabis Businesses:

  • Revenue: $1,000,000
  • Cost Of Goods Sold: $600,000
  • Gross Profit: $400,000
  • Operational Costs: $200,000
  • Net Profit (Taxable): $200,000
  • Tax Liability: $70,000
  • Take Home Profit: $130,000

For Cannabis Businesses:

  • Revenue: $1,000,000
  • Cost Of Goods Sold: $600,000
  • Gross Profit (Taxable): $400,000
  • Operational Costs: $200,000
  • Net Profit: $200,000
  • Tax Liability: $140,000
  • Take Home Profit: $60,000

The comparison makes it clear: even when cannabis businesses do everything right and navigate numerous regulatory hurdles, they take home less than half of what a comparable non-cannabis business owner would. 

Minnesota's Social Equity Licenses and the 280E Challenge

While Minnesota's social equity licenses aim to redress historical wrongs, the realities of 280E may not set these entrepreneurs up for success. The high effective tax rate, ranging between 60% and 100% of profits (Forbes, 2021), coupled with stringent IRS enforcement, can quickly turn dreams into financial nightmares.

Harborside, an Oakland dispensary, serves as a warning, having lost its battle with the IRS and owing $11 million in back taxes. Veteran cannabis tax lawyer Henry Wykowski emphasizes that 280E is not an area where creativity pays off, with attempts to work around it often costing substantial amounts (Forbes, 2021).


The prospect of running a successful cannabis business in Minnesota, especially under social equity licenses, is fraught with complexities and financial barriers. Tax Code 280E, in particular, poses a significant challenge that can reduce take-home profits to less than half of a comparable non-cannabis business.

For those looking to enter this industry, understanding the intricacies of 280E and the high failure rate of dispensaries is vital. While the intention behind social equity licensing is commendable, the alignment with federal taxation and the provision of adequate support are critical to ensuring that the promise of social equity does not become another unattained goal. Equitable taxation would be a significant step towards leveling the playing field and making the cannabis industry more accessible and fair for all. Until then, all cannabusiness owners should enter the field with eyes wide open and a strong business plan.


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