James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

(Correcting name of academic to Peter Reuter on Feb 27)

Want to help fund the bank bailout, ease California’s budget crisis and shore up strained U.S. finances? Legalize drugs, tax the trade and save on interdiction, domestic enforcement and the prison and court system.

I’m only partly joking.

It won’t solve all of the U.S.’s problems and lord knows will cause some new ones, but the money is undeniably big enough to make a dent.

After all, it certainly helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who legalized alcohol in 1933 in the midst of the Depression and after more than a decade of prohibition, thus bringing a half a billion in 1933 dollars into public coffers in the form of tax revenue. By 1936, alcohol taxes were 13 percent of Federal revenue.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a similar opportunity. He is facing a $42 billion budget deficit, his prisons are filled to bursting, in substantial part with people in on drug-related crime, and he will soon be forced by judicial edict to start freeing people. He also has an offer from a group call Let Us Pay Taxes, which claims to represent the marijuana industry and is willing to pay $1 billion annually in taxes if only he will legalize. No doubt they are low-balling.