During Saturday's Legislative Coffee session at St. Catherine Hospital, State Rep. Steve Alford, R-Ulysses, made an ostensibly racist comment when citing domestic Jim Crow-era drug policies.
When Zach Worf, president of the Finney County Democrats, argued that legalizing marijuana could be a financial boon to cash-strapped Kansas, Alford told him he should look to the 1930s, the latter part of the prohibition era, for a history lesson. Alford said that a reason for the tightening grip on potential intoxicants at that time was to shield Americans from the consequences of drug abuse by “African Americans.”
“Basically any way you say it, marijuana is an entry drug into the higher drugs,” Alford said. “What you really need to do is go back in the ‘30s, when they outlawed all types of drugs in Kansas (and) across the United States.
“What was the reason why they did that?” he continued to a crowd of about 60 people, none of whom were black. “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. And so basically what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to do a complete reverse with people not remembering what has happened in the past.”
• See video of Alford's remarks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IVNkUr8t4k
Alford was referring to a period when a man who became known for his fight against marijuana, as well as for his racism, was appointed the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). His name was Harry Anslinger. Under Anslinger’s leadership, the FBN came to be considered responsible for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, regulating cannabis and further taxing it to the ultimate detriment of the hemp industry that was booming at the time.
From 1930 to 1937, Anslinger campaigned for prohibition against the use of the cannabis plant. He postulated that marijuana caused crime and violence, saying, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Anslinger also said the primary reasoning for marijuana prohibition was founded in the prevention of “its effect on the degenerate races.”
Another popular quote attributed to Anslinger: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
On Saturday, Worf said that for a brief moment he felt like he’d been taken back in time. He added that after the Q&A session concluded, he told Alford his comment was “the most racist thing [he had] ever heard.”
According to a 2012 study published by the American Medical Association, marijuana can have a wide range of effects on different people at different times for reasons that are still not well understood, regardless of race.
The study showed that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — two active ingredients in cannabis — have opposite effects. While THC may increase risk for developing psychotic symptoms through chronic marijuana use, CBD appears to counter the psychotic effect of THC and could possibly be used as an antipsychotic. A study published last month conducted by scientists at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience yielded similar results.
No one addressed Alford’s comments during the Legislative Coffee event. Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, and Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, fielded questions alongside Alford as part of the session. After an ambient silence settled over the crowd during Alford’s historical explanation, Doll swept in to infuse a little levity.
“I can respond real quick to that,” Doll said. “We took away alcohol in the ‘30s and went into the greatest depression known to man, so…”
"We believe what we want to believe," Doll said later about Alford's comments. "I dont agree with the comment."
Wheeler was of a similar opinion.
"As to genetics, I can't say I agree with that at all. As to going back to the 1930s as reason, I wasn't alive then so I don't know anything about that. As to the racial component, I don't agree with it," he said, adding, "I know Rep. Alford quite well. He's not a racist man."
When asked to clarify later, Alford stood by his remarks but was unable to cite a specific source. He also said he shouldn't have singled out African Americans.
"There are certain groups of people, their genetics, the way their makeup is, the chemicals will affect them differently," Alford said. "That's what I should have said was drugs affect people differently instead of being more specific."
He added, "It's just the history of how come we are with the drug laws that we do have today, and how come the United States was so prevalent in outlawing drugs. I think we've got to look back to see what has happened in the past to look forward."
Alford, who has served in the Legislature since 2011, issued a public apology Monday after lawmakers and state officials condemned his remarks.
"I apologize, I regret my comments and I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I have hurt," Alford said in a statement, clarifying that what he was referring to were the "damaging effects on the African American community."
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.