The owner of a large medical marijuana business says two prominent opponents of medical marijuana were willing to take his money when he was getting started in the business.

Mark Higgins said Rep. James Knox, R-Billings, an outspoken supporter of repealing the law that legalized medical marijuana, was a friend of his who helped create a website domain for his business, Billings Medical Marijuana.

About the same time, in the fall of 2009, Steve Zabawa, a prominent member of Safe Community, Safe Kids, which launched a campaign to support repeal, was willing to lease him space in a warehouse Zabawa owned, Higgins said.

“I turned him down because he wanted a 10 percent share of my business,” Higgins said.

Neither Knox nor Zabawa denies having had business dealings with Higgins, but both men said their initially benign views of medical marijuana changed after the medical cannabis industry clearly got out of hand in Montana.

Zabawa said it was true he proposed taking a portion of Higgins’ profits in addition to base rent, which he called a typical arrangement when a property owner leases space to a retailer. He also said Higgins, who was then expanding from a home operation, had little money at the time.

Zabawa said Higgins “wasn’t very attentive to details” and didn’t respond to Zabawa’s offer, but “just disappeared” for a while. By the time Higgins did make contact again, Zabawa said, he and his wife had decided they wanted nothing to do with a marijuana business, economically or morally.

Knox, for his part, said he had known Higgins even before they both ran for the City Council in 2009, and he wasn’t overly concerned about the nature of his business when Higgins asked him to do some work for him. Knox, who owns KBS Computer Solutions, created a domain name for Higgins and charged him $600.

Of that, Knox said, he received less than $200. Rather than pursue the issue, he said, “I gave it to him at cost as a friend.”

Knox said that if he looked into the political and religious background of every client, he’d never get any work done. Even so, he said, after learning more about “the insincerity of the medical marijuana providers,” he decided not to do business with any of them.

Higgins released information about his dealings with Knox and Zabawa earlier this week to Montanafesto, a blog that bills itself as being devoted to nonpartisan Montana political commentary. The website, which apparently is run by at least four anonymous bloggers, has been very critical of both Knox and Safe Community, Safe Kids.

“I was just tired of all the lies going around,” Higgins said, in explaining why he released the information. “Enough is enough.”

Besides having run for City Council, Higgins served on the medical marijuana committee created by the council in 2009 to propose local regulations for the medical marijuana industry.

After looking at Zabawa’s property on Daniels Street, Higgins ended up leasing a building at 116 N. 11th St. and opening his business last April. It operates under the name Montannabis as well as Billings Medical Marijuana.

Higgins said he is a caregiver for between 200 and 300 medical marijuana patients and has about 300 plants growing in his 4,500-square-foot building, tended by four employees. He boasted that Montannabis currently offers 70 different strains of medical marijuana, more than any other provider in the state.

Higgins said he and Knox were good friends who went hunting together. He said Knox admitted having smoked and sold marijuana when he lived in California.

Knox said he has never tried to hide the fact that he experimented with alcohol and a variety of drugs in his youth, but he said he stopped using drugs when his daughter was born. He also said marijuana ruined the life of his brother, who has used it steadily since he started smoking pot in the fifth grade.

Asked if he, Knox, ever sold marijuana, Knox said, “No, not that I can recall.”

Knox was not happy when Higgins posted a private email on the Montanafesto blog. He said the email had a liability disclaimer attached to it, stating that the communication “may contained privileged and/or confidential information.”

After Knox saw the posting on Montanafesto, he sent Higgins another email pointing out the liability disclaimer and adding, “My lawyer will be contacting you to resolve this matter.”

Zabawa said that when he was talking with Higgins about leasing his warehouse in the fall of 2009, “that was the very beginning of my learning process.”

He said he, like many other Montanans, initially thought medical marijuana was a reasonable option for people with severe medical problems, like late-stage cancer or HIV-AIDS.

But the explosion of the industry has dramatically increased the availability of marijuana, he said, making it far easier to obtain, particularly among young people. Also influencing his views, he said, was the death of his brother-in-law of lung cancer, after smoking pot for 35 years, and his own child’s abuse of marijuana. Zabawa said his child is now off the drug, healthy and happy.

And though Zabawa favors repeal of the medical marijuana law, he said he also supports decriminalizing the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by people with narrowly defined, serious medical conditions.

It would be illegal to grow and sell marijuana, Zabawa said, but not to possess it for truly deserving people. How would they obtain their marijuana?

“I would bet there would be some good people out there willing to meet their needs,” he said.

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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