Votes on gay marriage and marijuana cement another kind of change

Liberal states support plans to recognise same-sex unions and recreational drug use

Election night was historic, and not just for the re-election of President Obama. Voters across the US also took liberal stands on social issues put to them on the ballot paper. Maine and Maryland became the first states to back same-sex marriage in a popular vote, Washington and Colorado cleared the recreational use of marijuana, and Florida voted down proposals to curtail abortion rights.

Of more than 170 measures put to the electorate as they cast their ballots for the presidency, few were as hotly debated as same-sex marriage. But laws approving such unions passed the test in both Maine and Maryland. Minnesota residents provided another victory for the gay-rights movement by voting down an amendment to that state's constitution which would have banned same sex marriages. A pro-gay marriage measure on the Washington state ballot was also on its way to being approved last night, with final results expected later today.

The voting patterns marked a watershed in the US equality movement. Although several states had already legalised same-sex unions, the measures had repeatedly fallen at the ballot box. In fact, the opposite was true: referenda banning legal recognition of gay marriage had been supported in more than 30 states, but that changed last night. "It's enormous. We have truly made history," Brian Ellner, head of the pro-gay marriage group The Four, told the Reuters news agency. "Having the first states approve marriage by a popular vote changes the narrative and sends an important message to the Supreme Court."

Washington and Colorado, meanwhile, became the first states to legalise the recreational use of marijuana. "The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will," said the Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper. "That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug."

A similar proposal failed to win enough popular support in Oregon.

In Florida, voters rejected plans to ban public funding of abortions – another thorny issue. Placed on the ballot by Florida's Republican legislature, it was largely a symbolic move because the state does not fund abortions with taxpayers' money.

In Los Angeles, a local law was passed obliging actors in pornographic films to wear condoms on set. At state level, Californians rejected a ban on the death penalty. And in Maryland, a law paving the way for the expansion of gambling was approved.