Opinion: Anti-drug crusader has skewed vision of his role


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

This billboard at North 13th Street and First Avenue North was paid for by SafeMontana, of which Steve Zabawa is the director.

Editor’s note: After speaking recently with Stephen Zabawa, a partner in the Rimrock Auto Group and the director of SafeMontana, which seeks to restrict access to illegal drugs, Hugh Healow wrote an extended Facebook post on their conversation. We are reprinting it here in a slightly modified form.

So I called Steve Zabawa last week to discuss my concern over SafeMontana’s approach to public drug policy, and to my delight he was willing to have a conversation with me.


Hugh Healow

Steve is actually a very nice guy. He has the kind and gentle demeanor you’d expect to see at a church bake sale: very pleasant. We didn’t do a whole lot to change each other’s minds, which I expected, but we did have a nice chat.

I expressed my concern over the hypocrisy of allowing alcohol and tobacco while condemning marijuana use, especially since we have some pretty good data showing marijuana to be considerably less harmful to both physical and mental health.

I also brought up my concern that treating people with substance abuse issues as criminals is not only confusing but cruel and exploitive, a business of manufacturing easy targets.

Steve’s response was peculiar. He asked if I had a wife and children, and after learning that I don’t, he recommended that I meet a nice girl and settle down. I agreed with him, as I do hope someday to have a wife and children, maybe, if given the right opportunities. (I’m a big advocate of planned parenthood. The concept more than the institution in this case, though I support the organization as well.)

I pointed out how that had little to do with my concern over public drug policies and he shifted the topic to my drug use. He told me about how he straightened his life out, and that he found happiness and a family and God and that someday I could have that, too, if only I’d stop getting so “messed up” all the time. I thanked him for his concern and pointed out that my life has suffered much more from alcohol and tobacco than anything else.

He said that alcohol and tobacco aren’t his concern. I replied that if his concern truly was about people’s safety then they should be. He again began to preach that marijuana was bad. He began to recite statistics (which really don’t impress me much) about how people were using more marijuana in Colorado than before it was legalized. I told him that was an obvious effect of legalization and that it didn’t speak to my inquiry.

When I brought up the potential medical benefits of marijuana, Steve inadvertently showed his cards when he condemned normal, natural marijuana products and tried to sell me on marijuana-derived pharmaceutical products. (Steve has financial interests in the pharmaceutical industry. Metaphorically, he was trying to sell me one of his cars when I have a perfectly good bike.)

At this point I decided that I had no choice but to invoke my divine right. I told him that I was sent as a representative of God to this Earth to help people. This actually just excited him more. (He really likes God, or at least his version.)

And he launched back into his sermon about how I needed to quit all drugs, find a nice girl, have kids and be happy. It was a nice sermon, and it belonged in a church where people go to hear sermons, not in a discussion about public policy.

The conversation ended with one of the most triumphant moments of my life, when Steve offered me an opportunity. He said that if I stay sober for six months he would hear me out again.

Then he said I should come work for him. He said he had several businesses besides his car dealership, including a technology company, and that a bright young man like me has potential. I was flattered. I told him I already had a job, but I would gladly accept his challenge to stay sober, not because I wanted to prove anything to him, because I’m already doing that, because I want a healthy life for myself and the people around me, because I have work to do in this world.

But Steve, my sobriety and your sobriety don’t have anything to do with a discussion about sensible drug policy. In six months I will be as sober as I am today and I will still think drug use and possession should be seen as a health issue, not a criminal one.

Ultimately my conversation with Steve exposed what I see as the problem here. Steve is a businessman. Steve is concerned with himself: his life, his views, his wants and his investments. He is not concerned with his community, he is concerned with what he wants his community to be, not what it is.

He didn’t actually respond to any of my statements. He recited his mantra. He preached his sermon. He demonstrated that he is not a public servant, that he is not engaged in a discussion about the reality that is going on around us. He is a businessman who is using his money to produce propaganda to sway public opinion.

We are in a crisis in this country wherein private enterprises have hijacked our governmental bodies for their benefit. This is a practice that has to stop. The people should have one vote each, not a vote for every dollar they have.

Steve, you are the perfect example of the problem. You are a clear symptom of a disease. This country is sick. We need to treat you. We need to cure this disease. The cure is a discussion, using observations AND opinions from all of us. We need to listen and respond and engage one another.

So thank you for talking with me Steve. I know what you think now. I know you think people should be sober, have babies, and buy cars and pharmaceuticals. But please share this world with the rest of us. We don’t want to be criminals. We want to be citizens. We want to talk about it.

I don’t like it when people hate on you, call you a fucking idiot, or a greedy businessman, or a failed husband, or a narrow-minded piece of opinionated conservative Mormon scum, or a hypocrite. Though those are all pretty well founded attacks, that’s not why I called you. I called you to talk … you preached. You told me what you think I should do. You didn’t listen.

Please use your money to start a church. Let people come and go freely through your doors. But, for the love of God and country, let the people live. If you are going to play politics, represent the people. It’s not your job to tell them what to think.

A politician’s responsibility is to represent the community, not change its mind. A businessman’s job is to cater to the market ethically and safely, not just program them to give you their money.

Hugh Healow is a fourth-generation Montanan, a 2001 graduate of Billings Senior High and a 2014 graduate of the University of Montana-Missoula. He has worked in restaurants, bars, the oil and gas industry and the music industry. He lives in Billings and writes stuff, including music.

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