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.
Hayes Holderness, Crack Taxes and the Dangers of Insidious Regulatory Taxes, 95 Southern California Law Review 483 (2022).