Gays, Pot, and Puerto Rico

by Benjamin Studebaker

Well, with the help of Nate Silver, I called it. Obama wins with around 300 electoral votes. As we know, the republicans retained the house, and that means that nothing much will change. Today I’d like to look at some of the other results from the election–the referendums. What were the results of the individual state referendums, particularly on gay rights, drug legalisation, and, interestingly, the legal status of Puerto Rico? What impact will these things have on the USA going forward? Let’s have a look.

First, a short list of what happened, in terms of referendums:

Gains for the left:

  • Maine and Maryland (and possibly Washington–results have yet to be determined) became the first states to legalise gay marriage through a referendum rather than through the courts.
  • Marijuana was decriminalised in Washington and Colorado.
  • Massachusetts legalised medical marijuana.
  • Maryland permits illegal immigrants who have attended high school for a minimum of three years to pay in-state college tuition.
  • 16 requests for permission to borrow money to maintain public services were issued, 15 passed with 1 too close to call at this time.
  • Puerto Rico opts for statehood.

Holds for the left:

  • Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Holds for the right:

  • Marijuana legalisation was defeated in Oregon.
  • Medical marijuana was rejected in Arkansas.
  • Michigan rejected a constitutional amendment recognising collective bargaining rights.
  • Massachusetts rejects assisted suicide.
  • California rejects a measure that would have banned unions, corporations, and government contractors from contributing to political campaigns.

Gains for the right:

  • Oklahoma ended affirmative action programmes in public sector hiring.
  • Montana denies all state services to illegal immigrants.

There are a few key takeaways from all of this, namely that gay marriage is continuing to make slow progress on a state by state basis, the war on drugs is showing signs of a loss of popular support, and we might have a 51st state in Puerto Rico. A few thoughts on each of these things:

Gay Marriage:

It is inconsistent with liberal values for the state to use fiscal incentives to encourage one kind of household (namely, the married one) over other kinds of households for religious reasons. That said, given that the state is committed to this incentive policy, widening it to make it as inclusive as possible so as to discriminate against as few kinds of relationships and households as possible is the right move. The particular states that approved gay marriage are not surprises, in that they are not traditional bastions of opposition, but they remain a step in the right direction for the creation of a more just society.


The shifts on marijuana will require some reconciliation–the federal government and the DEA remain committed to be anti-marijuana, so it is likely that this develops into some kind of legal contest focusing on the constitutional issue of states’ rights, or whether or not individual states may permit substances that the federal government has criminalised. The natural inclination here is to support drug legalisation and decriminalisation, because empirical tests of these policies suggest that they not only are effective at raising money for governments through taxation and regulation (when up and running, the Washington marijuana plan is meant to raise two billion dollars in revenue over a five year period), they are also effective in reducing the use of drugs–Portugal has seen use and addiction rates fall since that nation decriminalised them.

All this said, however, the states’ rights issue poses a larger problem. If a state can contradict federal policies on illegal substances, it follows that states could contradict other federal laws with impunity. Imagine a community of religious separatists who become convinced that enriched uranium is the true body of Christ and that in order to support god they have to create more of him, by enriching uranium wherever they can find it. If say, 500,000 of these people moved to Wyoming and proceeded to pass a ballot initiative legalising uranium use for religious purposes, it would pose quite a problem for public safety. It is important that the federal government maintain a check on state policy, and that the superior legal position of the federal government not be undermined. While I would like to see the federal government choose to decriminalise drugs of its own initiative, I do not want to see a reassertion of states’ rights against the federal government. The impulse for states’ rights was the primary cause of the civil war, it creates division within the country and is poison to the strength of federal systems.

The drug referendums in Washington and Colorado should make the federal government rethink its position on the issue, but it should not undermine the authority and position of the federal government in the long term. If push comes to shove in the courts, the federal government should win.

Puerto Rico:

The most interesting outcome is the decision by the Puerto Rican people to opt for statehood. While this will mess up the flag and take the number of states off of a round number, it is most certainly in the interest of the Puerto Rican people–they lack sufficient economic strength to profit from independence, and the present arrangement robs Puerto Ricans of the power and influence their numbers would provide them with under statehood. By current rules, Puerto Rico would be entitled to two senators and five members of the house (based on a population of around 3.7 million people), for a total of seven electoral votes. That gives them as much clout as Oregon. Puerto Rico also tilts to the left and would probably be a reliable blue state in future elections. Congress, however, must approve of Puerto Rico’s application for statehood.

The democrats’ party platform expressed support for whatever decision Puerto Rico were to make:

As President Obama said when he became the first President to visit Puerto Rico and address its  people in 50 years, Boricuas every day help write the American story. Puerto Ricans have been proud American citizens for almost 100 years. During that time, the people of Puerto Rico have developed strong political, economic, social, and cultural ties to the United States. The political status of Puerto Rico remains an issue of overwhelming importance, but lack of resolution about status has held the island back. It is time for Puerto Rico to take the next step in the history of its status and its relationship to the rest of the United States.

The republicans have also expressed support in their platform:

We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine.

Assuming neither party lied to America, we should have a 51st state soon which, regardless of your political leanings, is pretty cool–the last time the United States added a state was Hawaii in 1959.