Crack Taxes and The Dangers of Insidious Regulatory Taxes

An unheralded weapon in the War on Drugs can be found in state tax codes: many states impose targeted taxes on individuals for the possession and sale of controlled substances. These “crack taxes” provide state officials with a powerful means of sanctioning individuals without providing those individuals the protections of the criminal law. Further, these taxes largely escape public scrutiny, which can contribute to overregulation and uneven enforcement.

The controlled substance taxes highlight the allure to lawmakers of using tax law to regulate behavior, but also the potential dangers of doing so. Surprisingly, the judiciary has an underappreciated role in creating the allure of regulatory taxes. Because courts apply less scrutiny to taxes than to other types of laws, regulatory taxes get a blank check when challenged, incentivizing their use. Courts must reconfigure the way they approach regulatory taxes to remove the judicially created incentive for insidious regulatory taxes like controlled substance taxes.


“ ‘It was going through the mail and the mail lady smelled it and called the police . . . . I’m not ever gonna get out from underneath this, ever, not unless I win the lottery and become a millionaire’ . . . .”[1] The North Carolina woman offering these statements was troubled not by her arrest and charge of attempted drug trafficking, but by the twenty-thousand-dollar tax assessment she received for possessing controlled substances (that is, illegal drugs). North Carolina brings in millions of dollars from its so-called “crack tax”[2] or “Al Capone law”[3] each year,[4] and several other states use similar taxes on the possession and sale of controlled substances to further regulate already criminalized activities.[5]

The idea of taxes as a weapon in the War on Drugs may seem surprising, but perhaps it is predictable that lawmakers wanting to look tough on drugs would co-opt tax law in this way. More surprising though is the underappreciated role courts have in incentivizing lawmakers to enact controlled substance taxes and other regulatory taxes to achieve their goals.

How do courts incentivize the enactment of regulatory taxes? At its core, the answer to this question is a story of veiled consequences of elevating form over substance. Courts have habitually treated tax laws with the utmost respect,[6] resulting in a privileged regime of relaxed judicial scrutiny for taxes.[7] Governments must raise revenue, and taxation is a powerful tool to raise that revenue from whatever members of society lawmakers see fit. Unelected judges, the line of thinking goes, should be hesitant to upset these fundamentally political decisions.[8] This hesitancy has pushed courts to be exceedingly cautious when examining laws labeled “taxes.”

In addition to their revenue-raising role, taxes have also long been recognized as legitimate and powerful tools to regulate behavior.[9] One might expect courts to heighten their scrutiny of taxes with intentional regulatory goals (as opposed to mere revenue-raising taxes) to ensure that the interests of regulated individuals are appropriately considered. However, this is rarely the case, even when the taxes’ revenue goals are insignificant compared with their regulatory goals.[10]

In short, as critics of “tax exceptionalism”—the idea that tax law is categorically different from other areas of law and should be treated so—have long observed and frequently lamented, courts often employ a unique approach to analyzing tax laws.[11] Once a court determines that laws are tax laws, those laws become privileged before the judiciary, even when the laws have intentional regulatory effects.[12] This subtle elevation of form (tax law) over substance (regulatory effects) results in the judicially created incentive for lawmakers to pursue their regulatory goals through taxation rather than through direct regulation: taxes will not face as much scrutiny from courts.[13]

Lawmakers have noticed and responded, using taxes to achieve regulatory goals where other laws might receive more scrutiny from courts.[14] Though this phenomenon may appear benign, it can generate serious harms for individuals, as controlled substance taxes illustrate.[15] By adopting the taxes rather than increasing existing criminal sanctions, lawmakers impose punishment on those possessing and selling controlled substances without running up against legal protections for criminal defendants.[16] Even those people who would be acquitted under the criminal law can still be sanctioned for their behavior through these insidious regulatory taxes.[17] Thus, controlled substance taxes are a potentially powerful and unchecked weapon in the War on Drugs. Given the biased manner in which the War on Drugs has been carried out,[18] skirting protections for individuals is particularly concerning, as tax law becomes a tool of state oppression of overpoliced communities.[19]

The harms of these taxes do not stop with those cavalierly imposed on individuals. Regulatory taxes like controlled substance taxes also impose stealth costs on society because they are less effective than their direct regulation alternatives.[20] For example, controlled substance taxes are often burdensome laws for tax authorities to administer, making the taxes a costly alternative to laws directly regulating controlled substances, which are enforced by those more familiar with the substances.[21] Further highlighting the insidious nature of these taxes, they also obscure the total amount of regulation that an activity is subject to by remaining out of public view, leading to harmful overregulation that is difficult to address.[22]

Despite the dangers of regulatory taxes like controlled substance taxes, these insidious taxes have gone largely unnoticed in the tax literature. Rather, tax scholars have focused on the relative substantive strengths of taxation versus direct regulation when analyzing the best options for achieving regulatory goals.[23] Literature regarding the related phenomena of fines and civil forfeiture laws has not considered the unique situation of tax laws before the courts.[24] In short, the role of judicial deference regimes in tilting the scales toward regulatory taxes and the resulting consequences for individuals and society are underappreciated. This Article is the first to home in on these issues,[25] analyzing them and demonstrating how courts should take them into account to correct for the inadvertent judicial incentive for lawmakers to enact insidious regulatory taxes.

Courts can remove this incentive and head off future insidious regulatory taxes by recognizing the potential for these taxes to exist and placing such taxes under more scrutiny when exposed.[26] This Article builds on scholarly developments in modern tax expenditure analysis—which explores the role of taxes as a tool for achieving regulatory goals[27]—to propose an analytical framework for uncovering insidious regulatory taxes. A comparatively weak tax law passed to take advantage of the privileged judicial scrutiny regime for taxes is an insidious regulatory tax, and, once that tax is uncovered through the proposed analysis, a court should scrutinize the tax as it would a similar direct regulation.

Controlled substance taxes offer a prime example of insidious regulatory taxes and their dangers, but not all regulatory taxes are insidious. Regulatory taxes like carbon taxes that are more effective than their direct regulation counterparts are substantively justified and do not raise the concerns associated with insidious regulatory taxes.[28] However, as regulatory taxes continue to become more prevalent,[29] the proposed framework will become more crucial to aid courts in separating the insidious regulatory taxes in need of heightened scrutiny from the unobjectionable ones.

The Article proceeds in three parts. Part I provides background on controlled substance taxes and the judicial privilege granted to all types of taxes. The resulting allure of regulatory taxes can be too much for lawmakers to ignore, resulting in the enactment of insidious regulatory taxes like controlled substance taxes. Part II then details the dangers of insidious regulatory taxes in more depth, exposing the problems created by the judiciary’s current approach to taxes. Finally, Part III fleshes out the proposed framework for analyzing tax laws to remove the judicially created incentive for insidious regulatory taxes, using the controlled substance taxes as a case study to illustrate the framework’s operation.

          [1].      Michael Hennessey, Inside the North Carolina Law Requiring Drug Dealers to Pay Taxes, (May 10, 2019, 10:21 AM), [].

          [2].      See Jeremy M. Vaida, The Altered State of American Drug Taxes, 68 Tax Law. 761, 787 (2015).

          [3].      See Anne Barnard, In Taxing Illegal Drugs, the Trouble Comes in Collecting, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2008), [
7] (quoting an associate of the Federation of Tax Administrators describing the taxes as hearkening to “the Al Capone model”); Christopher Paul Sorrow, The New Al Capone Laws and the Double Jeopardy Implications of Taxing Illegal Drugs, 4 S. Cal. Interdisc. L.J. 323, 323 (1995); Christina Joyce, Expanding the War Against Drugs: Taxing Marijuana and Controlled Substances, 12 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y 231, 239 (1991).

          [4].      See N.C. Dep’t of Revenue, Statistical Abstract of North Carolina Taxes 2019 tbl. 15 (2019) (showing tax revenues ranging from approximately $6.5 million to approximately $11.5 million for fiscal years 2005 through 2019 from the state’s controlled substance tax, which includes taxes on illicit liquors in addition to illicit drugs).

          [5].      See infra note 34.

          [6].      See infra Section I.B.

          [7].      See, e.g., Eric Kades, Drawing the Line Between Taxes and Takings: The Continuous Burdens Principle, and Its Broader Application, 97 Nw. U. L. Rev. 189, 192 (2002) (“At times, judges and legal commentators have declared that Congress’ power to tax is beyond constitutional review.”).

          [8].      See Nat’l Fed’n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519, 531-32 (2012) (“We do not consider whether the Act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation’s elected leaders.”). As Justice Felix Frankfurter articulated,

[Governments] need the amplest scope for energy and individuality in dealing with the myriad problems created by our complex industrial civilization. They need wide latitude in devising ways and means for paying the bills of society and in using taxation as an instrument of social policy. Taxation is never palatable, and its exercise should not be subjected to finicky or pedantic arguments based on abstractions.

Felix Frankfurter, The Public and Its Government 48-49 (1930).

          [9].      See infra note 30.

        [10].      See infra Section I.B.

        [11].      See, e.g., Alice G. Abreu & Richard K. Greenstein, Tax: Different, Not Exceptional, 71 Admin. L. Rev. 663, 663-64 (2019) (surveying tax exceptionalism scholarship and arguing that tax is not different in kind from other types of law and should not be analyzed as though it were); Paul L. Caron, Tax Myopia, or Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Tax Lawyers, 13 Va. Tax Rev. 517, 518-31 (1994) (highlighting and criticizing the perception that tax law is different from other areas of law).

        [12].      See, e.g., Gillian E. Metzger, To Tax, to Spend, to Regulate, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 83, 90 (2012). Part of the opinion from Department of Revenue of Montana v. Kurth Ranch illuminates this claim. While observing that taxes are subject to constitutional constraints, as are criminal fines and civil penalties, the Court notes demanding constraints for criminal sanctions and relatively trivial constraints for taxes, even if those taxes fall on the same criminal activities as the criminal sanctions do. Dep’t of Revenue of Mont. v. Kurth Ranch, 511 U.S. 767, 778 (1994).

        [13].      See infra Section I.B.

        [14].      See Michael S. Kirsch, Alternative Sanctions and the Federal Tax Law: Symbols, Shaming, and Social Norm Management as a Substitute for Effective Tax Policy, 89 Iowa L. Rev. 863, 865–66 (2004) (describing how federal tax laws are used for regulatory goals); Stanley S. Surrey & Paul R. McDaniel, The Tax Expenditure Concept: Current Developments and Emerging Issues, 20 B.C. L. Rev. 225, 247 (1979) (describing how taxes have been used when direct regulations might be unconstitutional or difficult to enact). See generally R.A. Lee, A History of Regulatory Taxation (1973). Lee examines a number of federal taxes with regulatory effects in his work. In describing the historical context and creation of each tax, Lee uncovers the statements of many members of Congress demonstrating their understanding that they could achieve their goals in a less constitutionally suspect manner by using the taxes instead of direct regulations. For example, in detailing a proposed federal tax on grain futures in 1921, Lee describes a discussion in which Congressman Marvin Jones opined that “if that approach [of direct regulation] were used . . . ‘a constitutional question might arise’ but the Supreme Court had ‘allowed us to go a long ways in the taxing power,’ so he believed this was the ‘wiser method.’ ” Id. at 73. In a later passage, Lee describes a 1937 House Ways and Means Committee Report as finding that “ ‘the law is well settled’ that a regulatory tax, although controlling a subject reserved to state jurisdiction, would be valid ‘if it appears on its face to be a revenue measure.’ ” Id. at 182.

        [15].      See infra Part II.

        [16].      See infra notes 117-22 and accompanying text.

        [17].      See, e.g., Barnard, supra note 3 (reporting comments of a tax administrator recognizing the potential for the taxes to impose punishment when criminal sanctions cannot); Robert E. Tomasson, 21 States Imposing Drug Tax and Then Fining the Evaders, N.Y. Times (Dec. 23, 1990), https://www. [https://per] (reporting on controlled substance taxes as effective tools in combatting illegal drug sales because of their ability to avoid the protections afforded to criminal defendants).

        [18].      See authorities cited infra note 125.

        [19].      Indeed, the taxes are often enforced only against individuals charged with violations of criminal controlled substance laws. See authorities cited infra note 57.

        [20].      See infra Section II.B.

        [21].      See infra Section III.A.2.

        [22].      See infra Section II.C.

        [23].      See, e.g., Stanley S. Surrey, Pathways to Tax Reform: The Concept of Tax Expenditures 148-54 (1973) (discussing tax expenditures and the choice between taxation and spending programs); Surrey & McDaniel, supra note 14, at 227-28 (same); David A. Weisbach & Jacob Nussim, The Integration of Tax and Spending Programs, 113 Yale L.J. 955, 959-64 (2004) (same); Eric J. Toder, Tax Cuts or Spending—Does It Make a Difference?, 53 Nat’l Tax J. 361, 361-63 (2000) (same); Edward A. Zelinsky, James Madison and Public Choice at Gucci Gulch: A Procedural Defense of Tax Expenditures and Tax Institutions, 102 Yale L.J. 1165, 1165-67 (1993) (same); Eric M. Zolt, Deterrence Via Taxation: A Critical Analysis of Tax Penalty Provisions, 37 UCLA L. Rev. 343, 348 (1989) (same).

        [24].      See, e.g., Ariel Jurow Kleiman, Nonmarket Criminal Justice Fees, 72 Hastings L.J. 517, 520 (2021) (detailing similar issues surrounding criminal fees); Beth A. Colgan, Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures, 18 Criminology, Crim. Just., L. & Soc’y 22, 28 (2017) (detailing the use of fines, fees, and forfeitures as sanctions for criminalized activities); Suellen M. Wolfe, Recovery from Halper: The Pain from Additions to Tax Is Not the Sting of Punishment, 25 Hofstra L. Rev. 161, 197 (1996) (detailing similar issues surrounding civil forfeiture laws); Kenneth Mann, Punitive Civil Sanctions: The Middleground Between Criminal and Civil Law, 101 Yale L.J. 1795, 1799-1800, 1802, 1870 (1992) (observing the harms of failing to provide protections for individuals subject to civil state sanctions); Marc B. Stahl, Asset Forfeiture, Burdens of Proof and the War on Drugs, 83 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 274, 274-79 (1992) (critiquing civil forfeiture laws).

        [25].      As far back as 1979, Stanley Surrey, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy, predicted that “Congress, by inserting spending programs in the tax law, essentially has forced the courts to apply to tax law the legal provisions hitherto imposed on direct spending.” Stanley S. Surrey, Tax Expenditure Analysis: The Concept and Its Uses, 1 Can. Tax’n 3, 9 (1979) [hereinafter Surrey, Tax Expenditure Analysis]; see also Surrey, supra note 23, at 46-47; Surrey & McDaniel, supra note 14, at 246. Though this prediction seemed based on Surrey’s conclusion that “tax expenditures”—the normatively unnecessary provisions of tax law designed to achieve regulatory results—should not be entitled to the privilege given to revenue-raising tax provisions, Surrey and others since have not fully analyzed the issue of judicial scrutiny of regulatory taxes and its implications. This Article fills that void.

                   As an aside, Surrey’s prediction may have come true in some cases regarding special tax breaks offered in lieu of direct spending. See, e.g., Espinoza v. Mont. Dep’t of Revenue, 140 S. Ct. 2246, 2260-61 (2020) (holding tax credits for education to the same level of scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause as direct spending measures); Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388, 393-404 (1983) (holding tax breaks to the same level of scrutiny under the Establishment Clause as direct spending measures). However, surely Surrey would be surprised to find that his prediction has largely failed to materialize in the case of tax laws used in lieu of direct regulations. Rather, courts have continued to privilege tax laws regardless of the regulatory effects those taxes might have.

        [26].      See infra Section III.A.4.

        [27].      See generally Weisbach & Nussim, supra note 23 (laying the foundation for modern tax expenditure analysis, which focuses on the comparative institutional competencies of taxes and direct spending measures); see also infra notes 151-62 and accompanying text.

        [28].      See generally Shi-Ling Hsu, The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting past Our Hang-Ups to Effective Climate Policy (2011) (comparing economic, social, administrative, and political merits of carbon taxes versus direct regulations and concluding that a tax would be the most effective policy); Reuven S. Avi-Yonah & David M. Uhlmann, Combating Global Climate Change: Why a Carbon Tax Is a Better Response to Global Warming than Cap and Trade, 28 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 3, 6-8 (2009) (similar).

        [29].      See, e.g., Lucy Dadayan, Tax Pol’y Ctr., Are States Betting on Sin? The Murky Future of State Taxation 3-4 (2019), [] (reporting upward trends in the imposition of “sin taxes” on unwanted behaviors); Rachelle Holmes Perkins, Salience and Sin: Designing Taxes in the New Sin Era, 2014 BYU L. Rev. 143, 145 (2014) (describing increasing use of sin taxes).

*      Associate Professor, University of Richmond School of Law. For their helpful thoughts and comments, I would like to thank my outstanding colleagues at the University of Richmond and the participants in the 2019 Junior Tax Scholars Workshop, the 2019 Junior Faculty Forum, and the 2021 AALS New Voices in Taxation program. I owe specific thanks to Aravind Boddupalli, Beth Colgan, Erin Collins, Jim Gibson, Ari Glogower, Mary Heen, Dick Kaplan, Ariel Jurow Kleiman, Corinna Lain, Sarah Lawsky, Ruth Mason, Lukely Norris, Tracey Roberts, Erin Scharff, and Allison Tait. I am indebted to Chris Marple, Tyler Moses, and Whitney Nelson for their excellent assistance with research.     

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