Sen. Gene Davis draws the ire of Prop 2 supporters as the only Democrat to vote yes on the cannabis replacement bill

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) This Wednesday, March 7, 2018, photo, shows Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis of Salt Lake City speaking during a Senate news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Monday’s vote on the Proposition 2 replacement bill largely divided Republicans into a neat yes column and Democrats into a neat no column.

There was only one Democrat supporting the medical cannabis legislation: Sen. Gene Davis, the leader of the chamber’s minority party, and some Prop 2 supporters were not happy about it.

“This isn’t just a one-time thing. It’s a pattern for him of voting against his party,” said Madalena McNeil, a community organizer who lives in Davis’ district.

McNeil was among the Democrats who laid into Davis on social media after Monday evening, some even calling for his ouster.

“I’m not okay with that,” Shireen Ghorbani, a Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District this year, tweeted about Davis’ vote.

The Utah Medical Cannabis Act, signed into law by the governor Monday, superseded the ballot initiative that was overwhelmingly popular in the Salt Lake County-based District 3 that Davis represents. Most Democratic legislators opposed the cannabis bill as a move to override the will of the voters who endorsed Proposition 2.

But Davis, who supported the ballot initiative, said he doesn’t think his support for the replacement bill goes against the will of his constituents, who supported Prop 2 by a vote of about 77 percent to 23 percent.

“I believe the majority of voters wanted medicinal marijuana, and they voted for the proposition with the idea that it brought about medical marijuana,” Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said in a Tuesday phone interview.

However, Davis said, the ballot initiative lacked the controls to keep medical marijuana from being diverted into the black market for recreational use, an outcome that voters wouldn’t have wanted. The bill, he said, upholds the intent of Prop 2 without the unintended consequences.

Davis recognizes the legislation is not perfect and said lawmakers should continue working to remove barriers to patient access. At the same time, he didn’t believe a partisan stand was appropriate in this situation.

“We hear, coming out of Washington, this divide. That it’s my politics or nothing at all,” Davis said. “[Medical cannabis] is a public health issue of making sure we can get good medicinal product to the citizens of the state of Utah, and that’s what I voted.”

Sen. Karen Mayne, who’s lined up to replace Davis as Senate minority leader in January, said she didn’t pass judgment on her colleague for his vote.

“That’s what’s good about the Legislature: Everybody has a vote,” Mayne, D-West Valley City, said.

Mayne said she couldn’t support the bill because she felt it was flawed.

During Monday’s floor debate, she and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to add protections for state employees and give senators oversight in appointments to a physicians panel created as part of the cannabis program. The chamber’s Republican majority shot down the proposed changes, although they expressed willingness to consider them in future sessions.

Monday’s special session on cannabis wasn’t the first occasion Davis has broken party ranks on a major decision; he was the lone Democrat to join Republican senators in calling on the federal government to shrink Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

These votes gall McNeil, who noted that Davis has benefited from a left-leaning constituency that has given him a relatively easy path to re-election. Yet, he doesn’t seem to represent these Democratic voters reliably, she said.

“He’s not in a competitive seat. He’s in a strongly Democratic seat. He’s also strongly against the will of the people he’s supposed to be representing,” she said.

Davis, a 20-year veteran of the Senate who held a House seat for a decade before that, had no Democratic challenger in this year’s election.

His decisions could come back to bite him if he decides to run again, she said, predicting that he could face a primary challenge. Davis has already lost his position as a leader in the Democratic caucus, after his colleagues voted him out of the post last month during a meeting he tried to cancel. Fellow caucus members instead chose Mayne to lead Senate Democrats over the next two years.