Cannabis industry pioneer and social justice advocate Andrew DeAngelo recently interviewed Daniel Muessig, who is facing a long sentence in federal prison, for his column in Forbes. Muessig was indicted for nonviolent cannabis-related charges after he escaped a federal raid on a "stash house" in Pittsburgh that was found to contain over 400 pounds of weed. His sentence is due to be handed down in March, which will mean he joins the 40,000 people still incarcerated on cannabis charges.
Although the charges against Muessig and his colleagues involved in the stash house raid were all nonviolent, the fallout from the case has left tragedy in its wake. To date, four people connected with Muessig's case have died - due to desperation over the harsh penalties imposed by federal laws against selling cannabis in illicit markets, and likely due to intimidation by federal agencies. One, in despair over his father's suicide, slid into the abyss of fentanyl addiction and mental illness; an incredible rap artist and poet, he was found dead of an overdose at a bus stop.
That these deaths occurred because authorities would rather pressure nonviolent offenders over helping their communities gain access to a healing plant, than work to prosecute those who willingly participated in a violent national insurrection, as Muessig points out below, is an absurd and shocking indictment of our government's approach to criminal justice.
Daniel Muessig's Journey from Criminal Defense Attorney to Cannabis Prisoner
Muessig was formerly known as a criminal defense attorney who created an internationally viral ad for his law practice in 2014, in which he encouraged clients to hire him because "I think like a criminal." Though he hasn't practiced law for some years, concentrating instead on real estate, Muessig's tragic plight means that he ironically finds himself in the role of a criminal due to the horrific effects of the War on Drugs.
As he stares down the injustice of becoming one of the country's last cannabis prisoners sentenced to federal custody, Muessig shares his story with Honeysuckle in his own words. We hope you will feel the impact of his experience and take up his call to action for justice to address the continuing tragedies of the War on Drugs.
What Happened to Daniel Muessig During the May 24, 2019 Pittsburgh Stash House Raid?
As I ran for my life and freedom through the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA on the morning of May 24, 2019, I cannot confess that my mind was on the state legalization efforts or the fact that cannabis dispensaries served about half the country. At that time, 33 states and Washington DC. had legalized some form of cannabis - as of this writing, it's 37. And despite this, approximately 40,000 people across the United States are today still incarcerated on cannabis-related charges. I was a large-scale cannabis dealer whom the FBI had just raided for 404 pounds. My thoughts were those of a cornered animal: Flee and survive.
I escaped the initial raid powered by a desire to make it home to my wife, Laura, and start a new life. Every step of that seemingly endless sprint I repeated; “Do it for her. Make it back to her.” I had no idea at the time what was about to happen or what federal agency was behind the raid. I began to get an inkling when I bonded some of my colleagues out of jail who didn’t get away that day.
They showed me the search warrant stamped with the ubiquitous eagle whose single eye glared at me as I sat trying to read the document with shaking hands. It was Federal. There was no hope for leniency. No parole. A limitless amount of resources would now be brought to bear on us.
Daniel Muessig: Victim of the War on Drugs
My worst fears were confirmed. A fast slide into utter terror ensued against the surreal backdrop of a Pittsburgh summer. I did everything I could for those who didn’t escape: bond, legal counsel, moral support. My interest wasn’t just self-preservation. They were my people and I did for them what I would want done for me. We were cannabis people. We didn’t harm anyone. We took care of one another as we made our living and this would be no different.
The feds wielded their draconian sentences with a ferocity that bespoke relish.
One of the men caught in the raid was told his family would be indicted. The stakes were then upped when he was indicted along with his brother as if to prove their point on leverage. Everyone charged in the case faced the same 5 to 40 year sentence with one way out: cooperation. The brother refused to cooperate. Days later he died by suicide. He had no prior criminal record and left behind a wife, three children, eight grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.
Daniel Muessig's Struggles and Family Impact After the Raid
My wife and I huddled together, consumed by fear as those indicted went dark one by one. We began to be followed routinely and cameras bloomed overnight on lampposts opposite our home. Crying ourselves to sleep, waking up at 4AM to anticipate a raid, we crawled through each day. I staggered into a new line of work and started a realty company.
Meanwhile, our bonds to our families and friends had been poisoned by the constant stress. I told my parents that their perception of my life was based on a lie and that prison seemed imminent. They forgave and supported us, but now that looming terror infected every interaction. My brother knew my line of work prior, but now had to juggle his own career and family demands with his constant worry over my deteriorating mental state and suicidal ideations. The original indictees had their sentencing dates pushed back again and again. Fear faded to stubborn hope as months passed. When we'd lie in bed at night, my wife would talk about our future. The dreams she spoke into existence were haunting in their beauty. I'd listen to them until she was asleep and then sit up in bed consumed by one question:
Are they coming?
Federal Indictment of Cannabis Charges Against Daniel Muessig
After two years we decided to embark on our lifelong dream of being parents via adoption. We passed every class and test, and on August 21, 2021 we completed our home study. We were on our way. My mother wept tears of joy when she heard the news.
Late at night, two days later, my phone lit up. It was my federal defense attorney. My heart sank and vision swam. I looked at my wife, told her how much I loved her, said how sorry I was about us losing the chance to be parents, and picked up the call.
Previously indicted cooperators had done their work. I was indicted two and a half years after the raid and well into an era where large cannabis companies in my state like CRESCO and GTI sell more cannabis in a day than I was charged with in totality.
Over 90 percent of defendants in federal drug cases cooperate with authorities. I refused. I would not put other cannabis distributors into prison in order to save myself. The war itself is unjust and is fueled by cooperation as the accused scramble to save themselves from mandatory sentences. I would not aid in its further spread, even if it meant more prison time for myself.
As a result, I will spend a minimum of 5 years in a federal prison away from my wife and family while the CEO of CRESCO, a major cannabis corporation with dozens of stores, gets to go home to his each night.
Criminal Injustice in the War on Drugs: What Happens Next to Daniel Muessig?
We will never get to be parents. I will be branded a felon for life and do more prison time than any of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th. President Biden promised leniency and cannabis reform. But he's been focused on pardoning turkeys and firing staffers for smoking cannabis at home.
Every good memory we had; holidays with our families, the beach under the cliffs at Torrey Pines where we played catch with our niece, all of us so blissful and unaware of what awaited, felt tainted now. In this process you don't just lose your freedom and future, you lose everything. It obliterates not just your future and present, but any good memories in your past feel like they happened to someone else. There is no safety. There is no comfort.
Legal "Corporate Cannabis" Operators Versus Legacy Operators and Cannabis Prisoners
It enrages me. I won't lie. I respect legal entrepreneurs and their vision and enterprise. But let's not pretend that they aren't beneficiaries of a highly unequal playing field with opaque and nonexistent rules for some and life ending consequences for others. So when I see "legal" operators boasting of profits in the hundreds of millions and many tons of volume — tens of thousands of pounds — and then I look at the ashes of our lives over 400 pounds… I can't help but feel fury welling up in place of tears.
Corporate cannabis gears up for another bumper year in profits while more than 40,000 people remain incarcerated across America on cannabis-related charges. More than 70 percent of the U.S. population believes cannabis should be legalized.
I am a "legacy" operator, no different than a farmer in California's Emerald Triangle region or an extract artist in Denver. There is no statutory difference in the federally illegal cannabis I sold and that peddled in the chicest of San Francisco boutique dispensaries. Too often, even in the cannabis community, "black market" and "outlaw" providers such as myself back East are looked down upon by others whose privilege of geography and jurisdiction confers great benefits upon them.
Prior to the corporate legal framework imposed in Pennsylvania, there was negligible large-scale cannabis growing here. Our culture has always been that of the consumer and the dealer. That's who we are. Those are our roles in the cannabis economy. All of our cannabis comes from California, much of it backdoored from ostensibly legal operations. Everyone knows this is how the profit is made and the lifestyles of the West Coast growers and brokers are sustained. 90% of their cannabis leaves the state to fetch higher prices in our cities. Yet we are castigated as gangsters and they are venerated as hippie pioneers. In truth we are all both or neither.
One does not get to have the veneer of respectability for suffering at the hands of the law in decades past and then objectify myself and my friends deaths and incarceration through the eyes of our mutual oppressors. People needed cannabis here. Someone had to take that risk. I stepped up and took it. I did it for money, yes. I also did it because people in our community deserved access before the government and monied interests decided it was suitable for them to get it.
I provided medicine and I provided a living. Both are true.
Given the shift in public support for legality, I will be one of the last people federally sentenced for cannabis.
I will remain imprisoned for years on something that in the vast majority of America isn't even a crime.
Follow Daniel Muessig's descent into prison:
Other cannabis prisoners to support:
Free Bobby Capelli: 8 years for 100 kilograms and conspiracy
Free Luke Scarmazzo: 22 years on Continuing Criminal Enterprise charges for operation of legal cannabis stores
Free Jon Wall: Facing 10+ years for 1000 kilograms and conspiracy
Free Parker Coleman: 60+ years for 1000 kilograms and conspiracy
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