California voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot initiative that would have made the state the first in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana, major media outlets have projected.

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Gregory Lyons, a volunteer with the California campaign to legalize marijuana, calls voters from a phone bank in Oakland shortly before polls close on Tuesday. ((Noah Berger/Associated Press))

Voters rejected Proposition 19, called the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, which would have permitted adults age 21 and over to possess up to an ounce, or just over 28 grams, of pot. It would have also allowed people to consume it in non-public places when children are not present and to grow small private plots.

With about 24 per cent of the polls counted, the vote was running 56 per cent against the initiative.

Proponents argued it would help the state raise money, crimp the Mexican drug trade by pushing down marijuana prices and cut down on pot possession arrests. The initiative had the backing of the National Association of Colored People and the League of United Latin American Citizens, along with several retired police chiefs.

However, opposition to the measure included both the Republican and Democratic parties, and both candidates for governor. The U.S. government had vowed to continue enforcing pot possession laws even if the measure passes.

The pot possession measure was one of 160 on the ballot in 37 states.

Among other plebiscites around the U.S., Oklahoma voters endorsed measures that designated English the state's "common and unifying language," along with a requirement to show government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

Voters in Oklahoma also backed an initiative that prohibits state courts from considering international law or Islamic law when deciding cases.

In South Dakota, voters turned down a proposal to legalize medical marijuana, something already law in 14 states, including California. Medical marijuana was also on the ballot in Arizona, while Oregon was voting whether to authorize state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.

Another measure rejected by voters in California was Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state's greenhouse gas emissions law until the jobless rate fell to 5.5 per cent for a year.

In Massachusetts, voters decided against lowering the state sales tax from 6.25 per cent to three per cent, while Washington state voters agreed to repeal taxes on candy, soda and bottled water brought in last year.

With files from The Associated Press