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How Much Did the Differences Between Upstate New York and NYC Affect Legalization Efforts?


The political divide between New York City and upstate New York is definitely real – even if there is a debate about what really is considered “upstate”. That said, was that why adult-use cannabis legislation failed to pass this past session? 

The friction between the more liberal and conservative sides of the state can be found in numerous examples and attempts at legislation. However, while cannabis views do certainly differ, the opposition to cannabis extended into New York City’s region while crossing across the aisle as well. 

The Divide Between City and Upstate

When it comes to politics and ways of life, the two often rival. “Upstate and downstate are basically different countries in terms of culture and politics,” said entrepreneur and activist Evan Nison. Often, it is assumed that the area in and around New York City is liberal while the rest of the state is conservative. However, it should be noted that some liberal cities and areas do exist north of the city – and vice-versa.  

Nison said that despite there being more registered Democrats than Republicans in all of New York State – at around two voters to one – large parts of the state north of New York City are heavily conservative.

“This is both why the Republicans have succeeded for so long in gerrymandering control of the Senate, and also why it can be difficult for Democrats to win in some Upstate districts,” Nison added.

The fighting between the two parties could shift soon enough. In 2014, New York voters approved a bipartisan commision to redistrict congressional and legislative regions. The commission is set to take effect in 2020. 

Re-shaping the districts wasn’t far enough for one lawmaker. This past winter, Republican state Sen. Daphne Jordan suggested looking into splitting the state. The first year lawmaker representing Columbia county and parts of Saratoga, Rensselaer and Washington counties said, “There’s all kinds of things being passed (in Albany) that aren’t necessarily of Upstate interest.” 

Jordan is the latest to propose such an idea that didn’t gain much traction. Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, a centrist-leaning Democrat, called the effort “the Godzilla of pandering.”

What About Cannabis?

The contrasting views between conservatives and liberals runs deep, just like in most states. While cannabis is part of the discussion, it is far from what divides the parties. 

While marijuana was a significant discussion this past session, it was not the only topic at hand. Other significant recent debates in the state legislature have centered on a variety of issues, including transportation and the statute of limitations on laws and gun control, to name a few. Since Democrats have taken over in the past election cycle, they have targeted New York City’s infrastructure, reproductive health care rights and criminal justice reform, among others.

A key issue is tax revenue. In 2018, state Budget Director Robert Mujica said 70% of New York’s income came from New York City and three additional counties surrounding it: Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk. PolitiFact found the statement to be true, though the actual number was between 66 percent and 82 percent. This is one likely reason many conservatives would not support measures to split up the state. 

When it comes to cannabis, Cuomo himself represents a bit of a pan-New York perspective. Despite being raised in Queens, Cuomo long-held a more conservative approach to pot. Until he was primaried by progressive Cynthia Nixon in 2018, Cuomo had been on the record calling cannabis a gateway drug of sorts. 

Cuomo, under pressure from Nixon’s long-shot primary and growing voter support for cannabis, has since relented and supports legalization, or at least criminal justice reform. 

Upstate New York is not unified in opposition to marijuana, either. Nick, a 30-something Brooklyn resident grew up in Upstate New York near the Montreal border in Saratoga. He explained that his liberal hometown represented a pocket of support for cannabis. “But outside of it is really red. So, a lot of anti[-cannabis],” he said.

The sentiment in his area may be misplaced, according to Nick. “I really think it’s because  heroin is more of an issue so they blame weed as a gateway…[Heroin is] always all over the local news up there. I knew a few guys who OD’ed.” 

While Upstate had its fair share of conservative dissention to the measure, New York City area Democrats are also credited with killing the bill. They include nine lawmakers from Queens, Brooklyn, Westchester and Long Island. Those that gave responses for their opposition boiled down to pressure from schools and police while citing a lack of readiness for legalization. 

Meanwhile, a May 2019 survey from Democrat & Chronicle found that six counties would not allow cannabis sales. Columbia, Chemung, Nassau, Putnam, Suffolk and Rockland each said they would not, while New York City’s five counties pledged to participate. 

What Really Killed the Bill?

Upstate versus city fighting certainly does not help get bills passed regarding cannabis or anything else. And while it may have played a part in the bill failing, other factors seem to be the true death nail for this year’s measure. 

The official stance is that the bill “ran out of time”. Though true, the bill ran out of time due to a number of issues – mostly within the ruling party. 

Democrat opposition as well as lawmakers’ failure to include adequate social justice parameters were huge factors. Such failures prompted certain black lawmakers to withhold support. Coupled with Democrats in more conservative swing state districts fearing re-election, and it becomes much clearer how a seemingly can’t-miss bill does exactly that. 

Instead of adult-use legalization, New York has since passed a decriminalization bill to address criminal justice measures for the time being. 

That said, Nison believes public support should compel lawmakers across the aisle to support the measure. 

“This is one of the few political issues being discussed right now that is supported in a bi-partisan way among the vast majority of Americans and New Yorkers. Politicians should know that their constituents want them to get this done whether your district is Upstate or downstate, Republican or Democrat.”