CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
In a few weeks, I'll be commencing a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence for a first time, non-violent cannabis offense.
Federal prosecutors waited 28 months to charge me
for this crime. In that time, our region and nation went through two Presidential administrations, at least two United States Attorneys, three Attorney Generals, several national reckonings with racism and murder in policing, and an unprecedented surge in fentanyl overdoses and COVID.
The world we live in underwent momentous changes to the extent that most of us three years earlier would scarcely recognize many aspects of our lives today.
But here in Pittsburgh, one of the constants was the Western District's obsession with putting me in prison for selling weed in the spring of 2019.
I'm not going to wrap myself in the proverbial cloak of legal innocence. I'm beyond guilty. I conspired to sell 404 pounds of cannabis on May 24, 2019. In fairness, my entire life since the age of 13 has largely been a conspiracy to sell cannabis. I was also not a small-time player. If you smoked legacy market cannabis in Western Pennsylvania during the 2010s, then you more likely than not got it from me in some fashion.
I pleaded out at the earliest opportunity given and, most important to this story, I refused to cooperate in any form.
While my guilt was factual, the reason behind the government’s relentless pursuit of me stemmed less from my nefarious cannabis trafficking activities and more from the job I had when I abortively tried to not sell cannabis. I was a criminal defense attorney with a left-wing bent and a total lack of respect for tradition and authority as depicted by my viral ad, "Thanks Dan
," where my real criminal friends committed dramatized crimes and thanked me for enabling them to do so.
I created the ad out of law school, partially as Switftian satire because many people besides those who lock people up for a living know that our justice system is a sick joke. I also created it because with $300k in medical debt and a new career in a regressive marketplace, I needed some clients.
The ad went meteorically viral due to the fact that the truth in its mocking resonated. It succeeded too well for me to represent anyone here without prejudicing them with my presence alone. So back to the trap I went with a bevy of powerful enemies that my later mistakes gave opening to destroy me.
Long before your local government ever decided that you were allowed to purchase cannabis in a controlled and friendly environment, myself and my then downstairs neighbor Dale, a former steelworker and Mon Valley Citizens council labor fighter, opened up Western Pa.'s first dispensary in a converted basement apartment in Friendship.
"The Store," as it became colloquially known, was a Pittsburgh institution. Surgeons, nurses, teachers, (local) cops, yinzers, hippies, trappers, frat bros, sorority girls, lawyers, rappers, Steelers, cosplay kids, judges, punks, anarchists, vegans, service industry and sex workers, pipeliners, skaters, and some elected officials all called it home, jostling happily in the daily line as they asked Dale for their preferred strain or favorite edible.
It wasn't just a business. It was a place of love and acceptance, and truly egalitarian. Every race and class was present and respected. It was our CBGB's in the East Village or a crash pad on Haight in San Francisco. An enduring monument to the counterculture that blazed the trail for the corporate co-opt that ensued.
There would be no Apple Store-esque dispensaries with gleaming edifices and recessed lighting if people like Dale, myself, and hundreds of others here hadn't taken the initial risk and thrown that Overton Window wide open. We normalized cannabis being available here at all times. And we broke the exact same law that the Crescos and GTIs did. They somehow are allowed to rake in their chips off the table while we get thrown in prison for more time than many rapists, heroin dealers, or those who stormed the Capitol.
I wasn't sentenced to prison for the store. The feds stumbled onto our wholesale operation due to an ongoing investigation into a crew in Braddock that was selling heroin and crack. We sold a guy weed who sold it to another guy who sold it to them. I make no judgments about anyone, but I don't condone hard drug selling and I made it a point to never intentionally associate with anyone who did. The local press, however, didn’t take the time to do any investigative work other than retyping law enforcement affidavits and press releases. For them, the GOTCHA aspect of the Viral Former Lawyer going to prison far outweighed the question of: “What happened here and why is anyone going to prison for cannabis now?"
Had they done even a modicum of work, they'd have maybe asked if, during these times of dizzying household expenses and soaring prices, a 2.5-year investigation into non-violent cannabis sales was the wisest allocation of your tax dollars?
Every surveillance camera aimed at our house revealed nothing, every time we were followed running errands, months or even years after I'd withdrawn from illegal activity, every second of overtime, paper clip, printer ink cartridge, and each day of my incarceration was and is being paid for by you.
And there's the human cost. One of the original indictees lost his life to suicide after he was indicted. He was a 63-year-old father of three and grandfather of eight with his first great-grandchild on the way. He wasn't a major player in the game or a threat to anyone. He had never been in trouble and, had cannabis not been criminalized by the feds, he never would have been. Instead, facing a mandatory prison term and under immense pressure to cooperate, he snapped and did the unthinkable and irreversible. He's gone forever now. You guys also footed the bill for that.
His son, a street poet and famous local artist, was driven to the depth of despair by his father's death. He overdosed and died from fentanyl a few weeks before I was indicted. He was my best friend. A brother to me. And he would be alive and fighting for his sobriety and future if his dad was alive, make no mistake there. So he's also on the tab.
We lost our adoption over this, my wife and I. We were finishing up the home study, with the raid from 2019 about two and a half years in the past, when I received a phone call from my defense attorney saying that I'd been indicted. I soon learned that the charges were the same ones I'd offered to surrender on in 2019. My surrender was rebuffed when I refused to cooperate. I was willing to accept responsibility for my actions. I wouldn't shift that blame onto others. A coward does that. An enabler of our oppressors. Unfortunately for myself, my wife, my mom, and the child we had to leave in Seoul, others didn't share my idealism. So I guess that goes on the reckoning as well.
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Time and time again in this hellish process, it was made apparent to me that I could always avail myself of proffering or testifying in order to reduce my criminal consequences. This continued right up until sentencing where, after my final refusal, the prosecution released a memo so vile in its glee that it literally went viral on Twitter
. It became readily apparent that a large motivation for this long ranging, expensive, and horrifically damaging investigation was to stick it to me for the commercial.
They wanted me to rat. They'll never get what they want. No one is ever doing a day in prison because of me. If I have to do more time because of that, then so be it.
One of their largest issues with me was that I didn't adequately respect the law or the system. They harped on my quote that "Laws are Arbitrary." So to show me otherwise, they gave me a mandatory federal sentence for something that is state legal and sold by corporations in the state despite being federally illegal. Sure showed me. Irony is lost on fascists, however, and totalitarian exercisers of state power have no sense of humor about their institutional prerogatives and pride being trampled on by those with the temerity to question them. Bad laws end by being broken. No other way.
Many of the people who put me in prison share the same political party as myself and my family. When the democratic tent includes those perpetrating the genocide of the drug war and those being victimized by it, then that tent is too large and must fray. For years, our democratic politicians have pandered to the progressive base while doing nothing on criminal justice reform in order to appease their prosecutor and police constituents. This must end. Biden promised that no one else should ever be imprisoned for pot and those inside should go free. Rage over my sentence sparked the formation of "No Pardons No Votes," a movement created to hold waffling Democrats accountable to their empty promises. You don't advocate for our freedom? You don't deserve our votes. From dog catcher to president and every office in between. To this day, both Biden and Congress have never adjusted the mandatory minimum sentences that destroyed millions of lives. Reform is oh, so close and yet light years away.
Now, in my waning days of freedom, every second brings melancholic pain. Every good memory feels like a lie. I see people walking in the sunshine through my window and know that there will be no summer for me. No holidays. No nothing. I'll be in a concrete cubicle a million metaphorical miles away from anyone who cares about me while the world moves on in my absence. My wife will contend with missing me, and the family we hoped to have, and my parents will age without my presence or ability to help them. My days pass in a torpor of anxiety and dread. I feel like I am dying. I see no real future.
The people who put me in prison — both the government and their informants — either fail to realize or don't care about the fact that history will vindicate me and reserve a far harsher judgment of them.
Locking up non-violent cannabis offenders isn't going to be a plum line on a resume soon. It will be something those complicit hope to minimize with excuses like, "It was the law" or "We were just doing our jobs/following orders." I'd submit that once public opinion shifts, those excuses will sound ever more hollow as they already do today. There's a long line of these functionaries being retrospectively assigned their responsibility in crimes against people. Criminalization of cannabis was always about social control and never about public protection. At best, they'll be seen as the humorless and prim prohibition agents, and their tolerance of the corporate trade while chasing us will be their corrupt legacy. At worst, and more likely, they'll be perceived no differently than those who locked up war protesters, student dissidents, those who incarcerated migrant organizers, Black civil rights activists, and the Japanese during WWII. The law is meaningless in the face of what's right and that's something they've never understood. This is a human rights crime against non-violent Americans, disproportionately people of color.
I could never do to others what was done to me in this. My life is now suffering. But I can look in the mirror and see a man staring back at me. Everyone's a tough guy ’til that mandatory hits. Then you see. I passed my test. Shame many didn't.
When you spark up on 4/20, take a deep inhale. Tilt your head back and blow the smoke up into the sky. Smoke one for me. One for Bobby Capelli
doing eight years. For Jon Wall
about to go on trial for 10 to life. For Luke Scarmazzo
, 14 into 22, and for Parker Coleman
doing 60. You wouldn't have the luxury of your exercise in freedom were it not for us. Please remember that.
Free us all.
Fuck their laws.
No Pardons, No Votes
. An all-volunteer effort founded by friends of Dan Muessig. pardonsnow.com. Follow Daniel Muessig on Twitter and Instagram @dosnoun