The lawmaker, Republican Rep. Steve Alford of Ulysses, apologized Monday amid mounting criticism.
Alford made the statements over the weekend at a legislative coffee event in response to a question about marijuana legalization.
“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 they did that?” Alford said at the event. “One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, the African-Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off those drugs just because (of) their character makeup, their genetics, and that.”
The Garden City Telegram first reported Alford’s remarks and posted video of his comments to YouTube.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, an African-American lawmaker from Kansas City, Kan., said Monday afternoon that Alford’s comment was “bizarre.”
“He needs to apologize to somebody, if nothing else the individuals of color in his own community,” she said.
A short time later, he did. In a written statement, Alford described his comments as an aside. He said he had remarked that one of the original reasons behind the criminalization of marijuana in the 1930s was its negative effects on society and more specifically the damaging consequences on the African-American community.
“I was wrong, I regret my comments, and I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I have hurt,” Alford said in the statement. “Substance abuse is a blight on our society, and legalizing marijuana only opens the door to harder drugs. 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.”
Earlier Monday, before he issued the apology, Alford had defended himself while speaking with reporters outside of the House chamber. He initially declined to comment on the racial aspects of his remarks.
But he continued speaking and answered multiple questions. He said an advocate for marijuana legalization at the event “really kind of brought the whole thing up.”
“They’re the one that brought the racial part in,” he said.
After repeated questions, he said: “And he came up and told me I’m a racist,” Alford said. “I’m about as far from being a racist as I can get.”
Zach Worf, chairman of the Finney County Democrats, confirmed that he had asked the question. He also said he spoke to Alford after the meeting.
“I said, ‘That was the most racist thing I’ve ever heard anybody say and I will make it a point for your constituents to know exactly what your thoughts were here today,’ ” Worf said he told Alford.
Sen. John Doll, a Garden City Republican, was at the event where Alford made the comments. Doll said he knows Alford very well and he’s “not a racist.”
“But what he said, I disagree with adamantly,” Doll said. “Hopefully he didn’t mean it how it sounded.”
Alford chairs the House Children and Seniors Committee and has chaired the Child Welfare Task Force, which is examining the state’s foster care system. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said it’s “all early” when asked whether Alford would keep his chairmanships.
Alford, who doesn’t support legalization of marijuana, said in an interview that it is a gateway drug. It leads to using other drugs, in turn leading to the need for more mental health and other services, he contends.
“I’m looking at the safety end of it,” Alford said.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede other drug use. But the agency also says the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to harder drugs.
Marijuana legalization efforts in Kansas have not found much success. Bills to legalize either recreational or medicinal marijuana have not advanced far in the legislative process.
Ryckman and House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, focused on Alford’s comments during an interview in the speaker’s office Monday afternoon.
“Both our initial reactions were that we’re disappointed and taken aback by the comments,” Ryckman said.