Altering the course of U.S social policy, Maine and Maryland became the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, while Washington state and Colorado set up a showdown with federal authorities by legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
The outcomes for those ballot measures Tuesday were a milestone for persistent but often thwarted advocacy groups and activists who for decades have pressed the causes of gay rights and drug decriminalization.
“Today the state of Washington looked at 70 years of marijuana prohibition and said it’s time for a new approach,” said Alison Holcomb, manager of the campaign that won passage of Initiative 502 in Washington.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed legalization, was less enthused. “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” he said.
The results in Maine and Maryland broke a 32-state streak, dating 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.
In another gay-rights victory, Minnesota voters defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would banned same-sex marriage in the state. Similar measures were approved in 30 other states, most recently in North Carolina in May.
“The tide has turned — when voters have the opportunity to really hear directly from loving, committed same-sex couples and their families, they voted for fairness,” said Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign, a California-based gay rights group. “Those who oppose the freedom to marry for committed couples are clearly on the wrong side of history.”
Washington state also voted on a measure to legalize same-sex marriage, though results were not expected until later today.
The outcomes of the marriage votes could influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which will soon consider whether to take up cases challenging the law that denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
Maine’s referendum marked the first time that gay-rights supporters put same-sex marriage to a popular vote. They collected enough signatures to schedule the vote, hoping to reverse a 2009 referendum that quashed a gay-marriage law enacted by the Legislature.
In Maryland and Washington, gay-marriage laws were approved by lawmakers and signed by the governors, 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 Tuesday’s results did not mark a watershed moment.
“At the end of the day, we’re still at 32 victories,” 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 all, 176 measures were on the ballots Tuesday in 38 states, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
In California, voters approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year and sales taxes on everyone to help balance the state budget and avoid about $6 billion in cuts, mostly to schools. Voters rejected an attempt to curb union clout at the statehouse by limiting paycheck deductions for political activities, defeated a proposal to require the labeling of genetically modified foods, and didn’t repeal the death penalty.
In Massachusetts, backers of a proposal to allow physician-assisted suicide of terminally ill lost.
Maryland voters approved a measure allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition, provided they attended a state high school for three years and filed state income tax returns during that time.
In Oklahoma, voters approved a Republican-backed measure that wipes out all affirmative action programs in state government hiring, education and contracting practices In Michigan, voters rejected an initiative to put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.