Jeffrey H. Anderson joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the Biden–Trump debate, marijuana policy, and the national crime rate.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Jeffrey Anderson. He’s the president of the American Main Street Initiative, which is a think tank that focuses on issues that are important to everyday Americans. He served as director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice from 2017 to 2021, and is now writing on various domestic policy issues. He appears regularly in City Journal and in many other outlets as well, including the Telegraph, Claremont Review of Books, the Federalist, and the American Conservative. Today we’re going to discuss some of his recent pieces for City Journal, so we’re going to look at the presidential debate, pot policy, and the national crime rate. So Jeff, thanks very much for coming on.

Jeffrey Anderson: Well, thank you, Brian. It’s my pleasure.

Brian Anderson: So, let’s start with this debate that everybody’s talking about between President Biden and Donald Trump. As I think has been widely recognized, the president, who’s now 81, spoke haltingly, incoherently, at times he was caught looking a bit confused, staring off into the distance. In fact, his performance was so troubling that several major outlets that have supported the Biden campaign quite a bit, including the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly, and a number of prominent officials have asked him to end his campaign and drop out of the race. So let me just start with that question. What, in your view is the likelihood that a different candidate could conceivably be the Democratic Party’s nominee in this race against Donald Trump?

Jeffrey Anderson: Well, I think it really comes down to President Biden’s decision, and so I think the likelihood of there being a swap-out for different candidate’s probably not great because I don’t see a lot of signs that President Biden is looking to bow out. He has, essentially, all the delegates at the Democratic Convention are pledged to him, and so I don’t think there’s any real sign out there that at this point the Democratic Party is looking, or any one person is looking to challenge him and try to make it an open convention. There hasn’t been a lot of appetite for challenging Biden all along. As you know, Gavin Newsom certainly could have run against him. Many others. They chose not to by and large. And so I think at this point, Biden’s going to have to be persuaded to leave the race to open up other possibilities. And at this point, I think it’d be a surprise if that were to happen.

Brian Anderson: I wonder, I’m not quite sure what happens, say he does step back, what happens then in an open convention with his delegates? He’s got 99 percent of them, I think, or maybe even more. Is there a free-for-all, is there a backroom deal? Do people just vote their conscience in that circumstance? I mean, it could be really a mess, I can imagine.

Jeffrey Anderson: Well, it could be, it could be very exciting, potentially. They might try to tweak the rules slightly right before the convention to remove ambiguity about whether the delegates can vote for someone else on the first ballot. But I think you could have a situation where it could be like an old-fashioned convention of sorts where you have a lot of different people throwing their hats in the ring and a lot of debate and coalitions forming. You could also have a scenario where the powers that be in the party, the high-level power brokers basically try to settle on somebody and persuade the delegates to just go along with that person without a lot of competition. I don’t know, it could be a lot of different things, but all of it requires Biden to decide to clear the path for that, and we’ll see if that happens, but it doesn’t look likely to me.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, certainly the initial statements from the Biden camp have been that he’s not thinking about pulling out at all, but of course we don’t know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes, and he must be feeling a lot of pressure. Robert Kennedy Jr. wasn’t allowed into the debate. I wonder how the debacle there might help or affect Kennedy’s independent candidacy.

Jeffrey Anderson: It certainly can’t hurt Kennedy, I don’t think, to have one of the major party candidates have such a bad night and to the point of being questioned by his own party for his fitness. I think it probably will cause some people to give Kennedy another look. If Biden were to bow out, you’d probably have some Democrats who start looking that way or democratic leaning voters. I think we’re a far or a long way away from Kennedy all of a sudden vaulting into a position as the number two candidate or something like that. It’s hard to see what his path would be, but nevertheless, I think it was a favorable development for him and would increase the chances . . . If he can siphon off some of the Democratic voters and get them into his column, it would increase the chances of him getting on the debate stage next time if there’s another debate. But it’s going to be an interesting four months to go, I think, before the election, given that it’s been a strange race and by all appearances, it may get stranger.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, I can’t imagine they would be open to a second debate, the Biden Camp, if he does persist in doing this right through November. Well, we’re just going to have to see.

I’d like to talk a bit about something you’ve written about for us recently in a pretty comprehensive piece, and that is on marijuana and a policy shift that the Biden administration has recently initiated. Now, the President has called for pot, which is currently listed as a Schedule 1 drug, as it’s called, to be reclassified as a less dangerous Schedule III drug. This reclassification would legitimize marijuana’s medical applications and also make it more widely accessible for people. Biden’s enlisted the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to review the classification status. And I believe that both departments have now recommended that it be moved to Schedule III as the President desires. I wonder what your take on this is. Is the Biden administration’s move legally sound? More importantly or equally importantly, is it scientifically sound? We’re starting to see a lot of evidence of some of the negative effects of pot decriminalization and legalization in cities across the country?

Jeffrey Anderson: Yeah, I don’t think it’s sound on either of those levels. I think it’s another example of the Biden administration pursuing bad policy through extra-constitutional or illegal means. So marijuana was designated as a Schedule 1 substance by Congress more than 50 years ago, and this really ought to be a legislative matter to change the drug’s classification from Schedule I to some other Schedule, if that’s going to be done. Congress did allow the Drug Enforcement Agency in the executive department to change the schedule classification of a drug if it follows specific criteria laid out by Congress. But the Biden administration’s DEA really hasn’t followed that guidance in any sincere way. Biden basically just made it clear through a presidential memo to DEA and to the Department of Health and Human Services that he wanted pot changed from a Schedule I substance to a Schedule III substance, skipping right over Schedule II, and the DEA and HHS are basically just going along with that without a lot of scientific basis.

And again, this should be disturbing, I think, to a lot of people who might wonder how does the president have authority to push this sort of thing more or less unilaterally? Well, that’s a good question. The difference between Schedule I and Schedule III or Schedule II for that matter is that Schedule I and Schedule II drugs are drugs that are viewed to be harmful. They have the potential to cause harm, and the difference between Schedule I and II is that a Schedule I drug does not have any currently acceptable medical application and a Schedule II drug does. Schedule III is sort of the flip side of Schedule I; it would be a drug that doesn’t cause harm and has medical uses. And the Biden administration is trying to say that that marijuana fits that definition, but it’s not a compelling case.

And perhaps the best evidence of that is that the Obama administration, in its last year in office, the Obama DEA did a comprehensive review of this very question, and they came back and said, on the question of does marijuana have a currently accepted medical usage, they came back and said, “There are five criteria and it’s 0 for five.” And in terms of harm, they said, “Clearly it causes harm, and so it needs to be a Schedule I drug.” And they further said that it could potentially be a Schedule II drug and not violate our treaty obligations. But by moving it to Schedule III, we not only violate a lot of other things, but we would be violating treaties we’ve gotten involved in. So, the Biden administration is defying . . . The Obama administration is defying the best evidence about marijuana and defying the law and the separation of powers.

Brian Anderson: And it is the case that several medical organizations now have warned that marijuana use is associated with the onset of psychiatric disorders. So it is perplexing to me that there’s this push to make the drug more easily accessible given the mounting evidence that it does cause significant personal and social problems.

Jeffrey Anderson: Right. And the Biden administration actually lays out, in its report from HHS, it talks about all this harm that marijuana does, and a lot of evidence that society-wide, it’s actually causing more harm than cocaine, not on a per-user basis, but overall. And yet the conclusion is it somehow doesn’t cause harm. It’s clearly, it is a salute-smartly-and-do-what-the-president-wants kind of moment for HHS and DEA, but it’s really problematic. And back on the medical evidence; there hasn’t been a single example of the Food and Drug Administration approving any cannabis-based drug for medical use. So that seemingly should have pretty much resolved the matter right there. If you don’t have a medical use, you have to be a Schedule I drug according law.

Brian Anderson: I guess the drive for it is based on this false premise that so many African-American prisoners are in jail because of pot. You hear this all the time, and it’s, of course, not true. And so you really start thinking there’s a political agenda at work in this push to make pot available.

Jeffrey Anderson: Yeah, and I think that’s been overstated as well. And the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which I used to direct, put out a report on prisoners in the United States, and among federal prisoners who are in on a drug conviction, 99 percent are in for trafficking, not for possession. So I think there’s a sort of mythology that’s developed around this.

Brian Anderson: Speaking of crime, this is an area where you’ve had considerable expertise, including your period at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Recent polls have indicated that the majority of Americans consider crime to be a serious problem. Many now feel less safe, especially people who are living in cities. But Biden and a lot of the mainstream press continue to insist that crime isn’t so bad, that it has fallen, in fact, dramatically from its 2020 and 2021 levels, and that the president’s policies are to be thanked for this. During a State of the Union address, Biden stated, “The violent crime fell to one of the lowest levels in more than 50 years in 2023.” So I wonder how do those claims square with Americans’ perceptions and with reality?

Jeffrey Anderson: I don’t think they square well with either of those. The best evidence we have on crime in recent years comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey, which is done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS, and the survey, the NCVS is the largest crime survey in the United States, one of the largest surveys on any topic. It asks about a quarter of a million Americans every year, whether they were the victim of a crime and if so, about the nature of the crime, who did it, et cetera. And that survey shows that from 2019 to 2022, violent crime in urban areas rose a whopping 58 percent, just a huge increase from before the summer of George Floyd, and defund the police, and BLM, to the other side of that. And that might not even capture the full spike because 2021, as you noted, might’ve even been higher.

Unfortunately, the NCVS from 2020 and 2021 is not particularly reliable for many of the same reasons that the census had problems, the Covid policies of not letting people go door-to-door, et cetera. But the numbers from 2019 and 2022 are reliable, and they show a 58 percent spike in urban violent crime. It’s even higher if you take out simple assaults, which are like bar fights, arguably the least significant part of violent crime. Without those, it’s a 73 percent increase. And interestingly, you don’t see that same increase in suburban and rural areas. In fact, there was no statistically significant change in suburban and rural areas. And of course, the urban areas are where we’ve seen a lot more evidence of the progressive prosecutors and the lax approach to law enforcement.

Brian Anderson: You do see signs now of a pushback against this narrative, not only in the polling of Americans who are concerned about crime, but in some of these recalls for liberal prosecutors who are infuriating the public by putting criminals back out on the street. I wonder, is that counter movement to the defund-the-police movement going to continue to gain ground, do you think?

Jeffrey Anderson: Oh, I think so, almost certainly because the American public wants to be free from crime, they don’t want be in places where they feel unsafe. Most Americans, for that matter, I think, don’t want to live around a bunch of tent cities with drug addicts, and so I think it’s not surprising that there has been some backlash. And I do think, to go back into the crime stats for a second, there is some evidence that crime peaked around 2021 and has come back down somewhat. If you look at the six largest local law enforcement agencies in the United States like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, et cetera, they all showed a peak in murder rates in 2021 and a decline since then. But it’s noteworthy that the decline has not been nearly as steep as the rise. And so from 2019 to 2023 in all those cities, you see on average about a 25 percent increase in murder rates. So crime is way up from where it was pre-Covid in terms of violent crime.

It’s not being captured in the FBI stats, this rise in crime that a lot of members of the media are glomming onto. But the FBI stats I think at this point are just not reliable because they changed their whole system of reporting crime in 2021, which has ended up not being a particularly opportune time to make a switch. So looking at numbers from one side of that to the other was always going to be problematic; a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. But beyond that, a lot of law enforcement agencies across the United States were not ready to make that switch, and so you had a lot of agencies not reporting after 2021, including huge ones like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. So the FBI numbers are really not reliable and even less reliable are the partial year, unverified, not finalized FBI numbers that make up most of what the press has been talking about.

So I think that the big picture story here is we’ve seen a clear, huge spike in urban violent crime and some evidence that it’s probably peaked and is not quite as high now as it was, but until the next NCVS comes out in September, we want to have a real clear sense of the national picture on whether there’s been any drop at all after the huge spike, or not.

Brian Anderson: Jeff, just in conclusion, maybe you could tell our listeners a little bit about the American Main Street Initiative, which is the think tank that you are directing?

Jeffrey Anderson: Sure. We’re a think tank for everyday Americans. We focus on the issues that a lot of everyday Americans, most everyday Americans care greatly about, things like crime, and immigration, and national debt inflation, the Constitution, and the separation of powers. And so, we focus on a lot of the issues that perhaps sometimes the coastal elites have been known to neglect and try to provide a lot of good statistical and philosophical support for the kinds of policies that everyday Americans tend to champion and that are consistent with our founding principles.

Brian Anderson: That’s great. Well, thanks very much, Jeff. It’s great to talk with you. Please check out Jeffrey Anderson’s work on the City Journal website. He’s written a number of important pieces for us. We’ve discussed three of them today: “Now What?,” “Biden’s Destructive Pot Gambit” and “Enduring Lawlessness in Our Cities.” All three of those are available on Jeff’s author page, which we’ll link to in the description. You can find the American Main Street Initiative on X @American_MainSt. And you can find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. If you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. And Jeff, thanks very much for coming on 10 Blocks.

Jeffrey Anderson: Thank you, Brian. It’s good to talk with you.

Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

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