Marijuana was one of the winners of an otherwise bitterly divisive presidential election campaign, as voters in several states voted to support measures that would permit some legal use of the drug.
Legalized marijuana was the most common among a raft of ballot measures – 162 in 35 states – on policy issues ranging from gun control to the death penalty.
Voters in three of the most populous states – California, Florida, Nevada and Massachusetts – backed plans to relax marijuana laws. Voters in California, Nevada and Massachusetts supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use, while Floridians supported measures to expand the number of conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana.
Early results also showed support for legalizing recreational marijuana use in Maine, even as Arizona voters appeared poised to reject the idea. North Dakota backed support for medical marijuana, with preliminary returns showing support for similar proposals in Arkansas and Montana.
Pot stocks have surged in the past three months as investors predicted the election would significantly boost support for legalized marijuana, according to the Marijuana Index, a benchmark that tracks North American publicly traded stocks that are tied to the industry. Public opinion on the issue has changed swiftly. A Gallup poll last month showed 60 per cent of U.S. adults support legalizing marijuana, up from 44 per cent in 2009.
California became the first U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. But it has only been in recent years that states have begun to allow residents to possess or grow small amounts of the drug. Colorado and Washington became the first to vote to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012.
Four states and Washington, D.C., have since legalized recreational marijuana, while another 21 states now allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical reasons. Several states have decriminalized the drug by scrapping jail sentences for people caught carrying small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
Ballot initiatives – state-level referendums that allow residents to vote directly on policy issues – have fallen below the radar during the high-stakes presidential election. But they have historically proven to be important barometers of shifting public sentiment on social issues that have deadlocked Congress and state legislatures. This year, interest groups spent more than $900-million (U.S.) on ballot-measure campaigns, according to website Ballotpedia, which tracks the state referendums.
As both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump signalled support to raise the federal minimum wage above the current $7.25, voters in Arizona supported a measure to gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $12 by 2020, with early results showing voters poised to support similar measures in Colorado and Maine. In Washington state, early returns showed voters set to hike the minimum to $13.50 an hour. Arizona voters also approved a plan to require employers to offer paid sick leave, which has been a contentious issue in the state legislature. In South Dakota, meanwhile, voters rejected an initiative proposing to roll back minimum wage from $8.50 to $7.50 for workers under the age of 18.
Gun control has remained a divisive issue for presidential candidates, but in the wake of deadly mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, voters in four states faced proposals for new firearm restrictions.
Early returns show voters in Maine and Nevada poised to reject measures requiring mandatory background checks for private gun sales. Californians voted in support of bans on large-capacity magazines and background checks for ammunition sales, while in Washington State, early voting signalled support for a measure allowing courts to issue "extreme protection orders" that would prohibit potentially dangerous people from accessing firearms based on the concerns of police or family members.
Voters also faced decisions on the future of capital punishment in the United States, which last year saw the lowest level of new death penalty convictions and executions in decades, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center.
In California, voters faced two opposing measures on the death penalty, which has remained legal in the state despite a decade-long moratorium on executions. Early results pointed to voters rejecting a measure to outlaw capital punishment, while supporting a separate proposal to speed up the review and appeal process by imposing a time limit on death-row cases. Oklahoma, where botched executions triggered a moratorium on death-row cases and a Supreme Court ruling on the issue last year, approved a measure to enshrine the right to execute prisoners in the state's constitution.
In Nebraska, where legislators overturned the death penalty last year, voters backed a plan by Governor Pete Ricketts to reinstate the practice. Colorado, the lone state to hold a vote on euthanasia, legalized physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients with six months or less to live.
The Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, was a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign, but state-level ballots saw few debates over health care. Colorado rejected a plan to create a universal health care plan financed through a 10-per-cent payroll tax.
Some of the most contentious votes did not involve traditionally divisive social issues. In Florida, voters shot down an initiative that would have enshrined the right of consumers to generate their own power through solar energy. Solar power advocates complained that the measure was actually an electricity industry policy in disguise because it contains language that would restrict the rights of consumers and companies to sell excess power back into the grid.
In Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley faces impeachment proceedings after allegations of improper relationship with a top political aide, voters were set to narrowly approve a measure requiring state's Senate to have a two-thirds majority vote to impeach a top official.
Arkansas voters struck down a 102-year-old law that requires sitting governors to temporarily give up their political powers to the lieutenant governor if they travel out of the state. The issue emerged after former Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr used the antiquated rule in 2013 to pass a law exempting public disclosure of gun-permit holders while then-Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, was in Washington D.C. for a convention.
Voters in Oklahoma supported banning the use of government property for religious purposes. The proposal comes after the state's Supreme Court ruled last year that a Ten Commandments monument be removed from the grounds of the legislature.
With files from the Associated Press