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How key health-related measures and races played out across the country

How key health-related measures and races played out across the country

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
An election worker counts ballots in Atlanta, Georgia on Nov. 4.
An election worker counts ballots in Atlanta, Georgia on Nov. 4.
(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

While the cliffhanger presidential election took center stage Tuesday, voters throughout the country also decided numerous health-related measures, from abortion and drugs to stem cell research. Several Congressional races also hinged on health care topics. Here’s what we know about these health care victories and losses throughout the country so far.

Groundbreaking repeal of drug laws

Measures aimed at reeling back drug laws scored overwhelming victories across the country.

Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The citizen-led ballot initiative was designed to keep people out of jail and expand access to treatment and recovery services. “Supporters believe U.S. drug policy has filled the country’s jails with nonviolent offenders who need treatment instead of incarceration and has disproportionately affected generations of Black people,” reporter Noelle Crombie explained in The Oregonian.

The victory is “arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was behind the measure, as reported in the Seattle Times.

In a separate measure, Oregon also became the first in the country to legalize psilocybin or psychedelic  mushrooms for therapeutic uses, such as treating depression and anxiety.

A wave of marijuana legalization

States across the country — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — legalized the use of recreational marijuana among adults. These successes “represent a massive shift” in public opinion and could undo some damages the drug war did to communities of color, writes Vox reporter German Lopez.

“Together, these ballot measures’ successes amount to a significant repudiation of America’s war on drugs. U.S. drug policy has for decades been built on the principle that drugs should be illegal, with the criminal justice system acting as a deterrent to use and addiction. Voters clearly want to move away from that,” Lopez wrote.

Those states plus voter approval of medical marijuana in Mississippi means marijuana will be legal for medical use in three dozen states and recreational use in 15, according to the New York Times.

A mixed bag on abortion

Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved adding language to the state’s constitution that explicitly states that the document doesn’t protect the right to abortion – and that the state doesn’t have to pay for it. That could have resounding implications if the Supreme Court decides to leave the abortion decision up to states, according to Mother Jones reporter Becca Andrews, who wrote:

“Given the current makeup of the courts, and, notably, a new anti-choice justice on the Supreme Court, it is a clear step toward preparing for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, which would make abortion access a state issue rather than a federal one. If that happens, Louisiana, it seems, wants to waste no time in banning it.” 

Voters in Colorado, though, rejected a measure that would have banned abortions starting at 22 weeks except in cases in which a mother’s life was at risk. The state does not prohibit abortions at any point during pregnancy, making it one of the least restrictive states in the country.

“It’s a victory for every person who has been denied an abortion in their home state and had to travel thousands of miles for the medical care they needed,” said Dusti Gurule, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights in this Colorado Sun story.

Raising tobacco, e-cigarette taxes

Oregon voters passed a measure that would add an extra $2 tax on cigarettes as well as establish a new tax on e-cigarettes. Most of the revenues will go to the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s health care plan for the poor, and the rest to smoking cessation programs, according to The Oregonian. That move raised the state’s cigarette tax from the 32nd highest in the country to the 6th.

Colorado was also projected to pass a ballot initiative that would increase cigarette taxes and impose a new tax on e-cigarettes. The money raised would go to various education and health programs as well as the state’s general fund.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma voters rejected a measure that would have moved some tobacco settlement monies to fund the state’s Medicaid program – a move that comes shortly after the state vote to expand Medicaid earlier this year. While the governor and many Republican legislators backed the measure, there was no widespread campaign in support, wrote reporter Carmen Forman in The Oklahoman. At the same time, health care associations opposed the measure, citing a desire to protect tobacco cessation and prevention program funding as well as cancer research. 

Funding stem cell research

California’s stem cell therapy proposition was holding onto a slim lead as of Wednesday afternoon.

The measure would continue taxpayer funding of stem cell research, a step the state first took 16 years ago following a federal funding ban (which has since been lifted). In a USA Today article, researchers said the funding made the state a leader in global stem cell research on diseases such as Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration and Type 1 diabetes. But some questioned whether the state could afford the $5.5 billion funding, given the pandemic, wildfires and other financial costs.

Democrats lose in health-related races

A number of Democratic congressional candidates whose campaigns focused on health and science  failed to flip seats, including Dr. Cameron Webb in Virginia, chemist Nancy Goroff in New York, Dr. Barbara Bollier in Kansas and Democrat Quinn Nystrom, whose campaign focused on drug prices.

Another notable Democratic loss: Rep. Donna Shalala, who formerly served as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary under President Clinton, lost her Florida seat.  

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis declared victory in a close North Carolina race. Much of the race against Democrat Cal Cunningham centered around Tillis’ close ties with the pharmaceutical industry, writes STAT reporter Lev Facher. Campaign attack ads “highlighted his status as a leading recipient of drug industry campaign cash and his recent opposition to a GOP-backed drug pricing bill.”

Other health measures

  • Colorado passed a family and medical leave policy that would mandate 12 weeks of paid time off, joining eight other states and Washington D.C.  The move marked the the first time in the nation that voters have decided on family leave policies, as other states approved the measures via legislatures, according to Colorado Public Radio.

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