Voters a continent apart made history on Tuesday on two divisive social issues, with Maine and Maryland becoming the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, while Washington state and Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana.
The outcome in Maine and Maryland broke a 32-state streak, dating back to 1998, in which gay marriage had been rebuffed by every state that voted on it. They will become the seventh and eighth states to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“For the first time, voters in Maine and Maryland voted to allow loving couples to make lifelong commitments through marriage — forever taking away the right-wing talking point that marriage equality couldn’t win on the ballot,” said Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group.
Washington state also was voting on measures to legalize same-sex marriage, while Minnesota voters were considering a conservative-backed amendment that would place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.
The marijuana measures in Colorado and Washington set up a showdown with the federal government, which outlaws the drug.
Colorado’s Amendment 64 will allow adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce (28g) of marijuana, though using the drug publicly would still be banned. The amendment would also allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants in a private, secure area.
Washington’s measure establishes a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, where adults can buy up to an ounce. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.
The Washington measure was notable for its sponsors and supporters, who ranged from public health experts and wealthy high-tech executives to two of the Justice Department’s top former officials in Seattle, US Attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer.
“Marijuana policy reform remains an issue where the people lead and the politicians follow, but Washington state shows that many politicians are beginning to catch up,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the so-called “war on drugs.”
Estimates show that pot taxes could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the sales won’t start until state officials make rules to govern the legal weed industry.
In Massachusetts, voters approved a measure to allow marijuana use for medical reasons, joining 17 other states. Arkansas voters were deciding on a similar measure that would make it the first Southern state in that group.
Maine’s referendum on same-sex marriage marked the first time that gay-rights supporters put the issue to a popular vote. They collected enough signatures over the summer to schedule the vote, hoping to reverse the outcome of a 2009 referendum that quashed a gay-marriage law enacted by the state legislature.
In both Maryland and Washington, gay-marriage laws were approved by lawmakers and signed by the governors earlier this year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to challenge the laws.
The president of the most active advocacy group opposing same-sex marriage, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, insisted the Maryland and Maine results did not mark a watershed moment.
“At the end of the day, we’re still at 32 victories and they’ve got two,” he said. “Just because two extreme blue states vote for gay marriage doesn’t mean the Supreme Court will create a constitutional right for it out of thin air.”
In Minnesota, the question was whether the state would join 30 others in placing a ban on gay marriage in its constitution. Even if the ban is defeated, same-sex marriage would remain illegal in Minnesota under statute.
Heading into the election, gay marriage was legal in six states and Washington — in each case the result of legislation or court orders, not by a vote of the people.
In California, voters were deciding whether to repeal the state’s death penalty. If the measure prevailed, more than 720 inmates on death row there would have their sentences converted to life in jail.
While 17 states have ended capital punishment, most did so through legislative action. Only in Oregon, in 1964, did voters choose to repeal the death penalty; they later reversed the decision to reinstate it.
In all, there were 176 measures on the ballots on Tuesday in 38 states, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.