TOPEKA — A Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives sparked outrage Monday with a racially charged claim that African-American people’s character and genetics make them more susceptible to use of marijuana.
Rep. Steve Alford, a Ulysses farmer who has served in the Legislature since 2011, later apologized amid a firestorm of criticism.
“I was wrong, I regret my comments and I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I have hurt,” Alford said in a statement.
Alford said during a town hall Saturday in Garden City that black people were “users” and responded worst to the drug because of their “character makeup” and “genetics,” according to The Garden City Telegram. The paper also reported Alford attributed U.S. officials’ decision to ban marijuana in the 1930s to drug abuse by African-Americans.
“One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, was that the African-Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off to those drugs just because of their character makeup, their genetics and that,” Alford said at the forum.
Alford’s peers in the Legislature were appalled a member of the Legislature voiced raw stereotyping. House leaders said they were “taken aback” and “disappointed” by Alford’s comment, promising to review the event.
“I think that is outrageous,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. “For a sitting state representative to say that, I just can’t believe it. You can’t put everybody into one category. He should be more of a statesman and get facts.”
Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., and relative of author Alex Haley, said the type of commentary attributed to Alford reflected prejudices held by Americans for hundreds of years.
“Unfounded stereotypes have been the basis of racist and gender discrimination from inception of our country,” Haley said. “Unfounded statements that refer to race are an indictment of small minds.”
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor, said in a statement the type of ignorance reflected in Alford’s statements had festered in Topeka for too long.
“It is hard to believe that in 2018, anyone would support the discredited and racist policies of the Jim Crow era,” Brewer said. “No matter one’s feelings on medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, we can all agree that views like those of Kansas Rep. Alford have no place in our Statehouse, in our state or in our country.”
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat and history professor, said Alford’s comments were “bizarre,” inaccurate and racist.
“He needs to apologize to somebody — if nothing else, the individuals of color in his community,” Winn said.
Alford could face discipline from the House Republican leadership, but House Speaker Ron Ryckman said it was too early to tell what might be appropriate. Alford chairs the state’s Child Welfare System Task Force and the House Committee on Children and Seniors, and Ryckman could strip him of those titles. Ryckman said he and House Majority Leader Don Hineman would review the issue and relevant policies with staff.
“Obviously, we were really taken aback by the comments, and in no way that represents the view of Kansans or the House and no way those comments reflect the policies that we come up with this session,” Ryckman said.
Alford met with Ryckman and Hineman after the House convened for its first meeting of the 2018 legislative session. He issued his apology after that and characterized his remarks as an “aside” about the original reasons behind officials’ decision to criminalize marijuana in the 1930s, which he said was “its negative effects on society and more specifically the damaging consequences on the African-American community.”
Alford’s apology called substance abuse a “blight on our society.”
“I have seen firsthand how drug abuse destroys lives, even within my own family, and I remain committed to fighting the spread of addiction in our state,” Alford said.
Before issuing his apology, Alford defended himself from accusations of racism. He initially refused to comment on the racial elements of his weekend remarks and said people should educate themselves on why anti-drug laws were enacted. He claimed they did not have to do with race, but he declined to elaborate on what information he thought people should know.
“Basically, the question of marijuana was coming up, and basically, what I’m really saying is that I’m against marijuana because it’s an entry drug into everything else,” Alford told The Topeka Capital-Journal.
According to the Telegram, Zach Worf, president of the Finney County Democrats, raised the issue of marijuana legalization at the weekend event and suggested it could financially benefit the state. That prompted Alford to tell him to look at 1930s history.
“He came up and told me I’m a racist,” Alford told The Capital-Journal. “I’m about as far from being a racist as I could get.”