By Ben Burgis / The Nation
In the fall of 2020, Daniel Muessig was urging everyone he knew to get out and vote. He lived in the swingiest of swing states and, while he’d supported Bernie in the primaries, he was now convinced of the importance of carrying Pennsylvania for Joe Biden.
Millions of people who share Daniel’s politics had come to the same conclusion. The difference is that Daniel was facing a federal prison sentence—and he had every reason to believe that a Biden presidency would save him.
As federal drug charges go, the one he was facing was nothing. Daniel wasn’t accused of doing anything violent, and, other than one minor brush with the system when he was a juvenile, it was the first time he’d even been arrested.
To be clear, by his own cheerful admission, he’s sold a lot of weed over the years. He was what a kingpin looked like in Squirrel Hill—a pleasant and prosperous Jewish neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh. But he didn’t mess with hard drugs or associate with people who did. And he constantly urged the people who worked for him not to carry weapons.
He knew all about the added legal risks doing any of that would bring. Before he switched careers and became the leader of what would later be called the “Orange Box Gang,” he was a practicing lawyer.
When I interviewed Daniel, I had the unsettling sense that he was both nothing like me and exactly like me. We’re both overeducated leftists. We’d both probably be in better shape if we didn’t like specialty pizzas quite so much, and, yes, we’ve both smoked our fair share of weed. I even spent a year living in Squirrel Hill.
But Daniel has a wild streak that I just don’t have—a drive to push every limit in sight. He comes from a nice Jewish family. His father got most of the way through a PhD in Russian history at the University of Chicago before his mother got pregnant. His brother is the business and technology editor at the Los Angeles Times. But Daniel was getting into trouble even as a teenager, staying out with girls until three in the morning, rapping, selling small amounts of weed, and running from the cops. Before he decided to settle down and go to law school, he was touring the United States and Europe as a freestyle rapper. And when he needed an innovative way to drum up business for his law practice, he came up with a way of getting his name out into the world that worked so well that it destroyed his career.
In a viral ad that could be a Mr. Show sketch, we’re introduced to a series of seedy characters. Again and again, the character’s image freezes and a list of petty crimes like prescription fraud and receiving stolen property appears on the screen. As the music continues, the character flashes a friendly smile and says, “Thanks, Dan!”
It was hilarious—but not to any of the judges or prosecutors Daniel encountered when he actually tried to work as a defense attorney. These people cared deeply about the system he had mocked, and when they found out that he was that lawyer, they wanted to destroy him.
When Daniel himself appears in the screen a little over a minute into the commercial, he speaks a line that would be quoted many years later in the prosecution’s sentencing memo. “Consequences! They sure suck, don’t they?”
About 15 seconds before that, we see a hard-faced older man who looks a little like a cross between Willie Nelson and the kind of steelworker who might get arrested for getting into a fistfight with a scab on a union picket line. His name is Dale, and he actually was a steelworker. When the mills closed, Dale Worton was part of a group of workers who protested the loss of their jobs and the devastation of their communities with tactics Daniel describes as having ranged from “throwing blood into the pools of steel executives” to “dynamiting the entrance to Mellon Bank in Homestead” to “oh so many dead animals and stink bombs being tossed into family parties and mansions across western PA.” Dale liked boats and prostitutes and listening to Led Zeppelin cranked up to 11. Unsurprisingly, he also liked weed—and when his upstairs neighbor Daniel Muessig couldn’t be a lawyer anymore, they collaborated to open up an illegal dispensary known simply as “the store.”
Daniel understands that he was being stupid. He had a sense of daring and adventure. He was also, for all his socialist political convictions, one hell of an entrepreneur: innovative, clever and consistently at least a step or two ahead of the competition. But his wife was always warning him that he’d pushed so far so fast that he was asking for trouble. He was operating an illegal business in a store built out of the laundry room of a building he didn’t own—and it was so popular that cars would be lined up around the block. After Dale died, Daniel just doubled down and expanded the operation.
His crew operated in plain sight, storing their product in orange lock boxes at construction sites and buildings. Weed wasn’t quite legal, but in the 2010s enforcement was already a shadow of what it once was. When the raid happened in May 2019, it was a fluke. They walked into a trap ultimately set for a different gang—one that didn’t just sell weed.
Daniel went through two excruciating years of waiting and wondering after that. Meanwhile, his friends were indicted, one after another. A 63-year-old man only marginally involved in the business hanged himself when the indictment came down and he realized how many years he’d have to spend in prison. Daniel described to me how he bent over and vomited in a Target parking lot when he got the news.
As he waited, the world was shut down by Covid-19. A new president was elected—one who’d promised that he would pardon and expunge the record of everyone in federal prison for cannabis. Daniel and his wife let themselves believe the Justice Department wouldn’t bother with him, and eventually they even made plans to fulfill their long-held dream of adopting a child. That’s when the hammer finally came down.
He was offered, again and again throughout the process, the option of informing on his friends. He easily could have gotten off with probation. Instead, when he reports to prison on May 11, he’ll serve a minimum of five years—unless President Biden finally makes good on his promise.
There’s no denying that Daniel was reckless. But if you listen to him tell his story, sometimes peppering it with pop-culture references and jokey asides and sometimes lapsing into deep sadness, I defy anyone who’s made of human parts to truly believe that this man deserves what’s being done to him. He’s about to be separated from the many, many people who love him. He’s going to be locked in a cage for five years.
That’s five years for committing a “crime” that’s been made entirely legal in states from Maine to Oregon and from Michigan to California. And, when you get right down to it, for being a cocky loudmouth who offends judges and prosecutors.
Daniel has been a self-described “loyal foot soldier for the Democratic Party” since he turned 18. He’s pushed hard for insurgent democratic socialists, even selling his customers on his favored candidates while he packaged up their weed, but he’s also sucked it up and voted for the most mediocre centrists to keep right-wing Republicans out of office. Now, he’s giving everyone the opposite advice. Along with 2020 Bernie Sanders organizer Daniel Ezra Moraff, Daniel Muessig is pushing a high-risk strategy to make Biden keep his promise—no pardons, no votes.
Some people reading this article may be prepared to take the pledge and do the electoral equivalent of shooting the hostage next fall. Others might be disturbed by the idea of rolling the dice on the possible consequences of electing the greater evil. Ultimately, you’re going have to make your own calculations between pragmatism and principle.
Daniel Muessig has already made his. Starting on May 11, he’s going to wake up in a cell every day for the next 1,875 days. That’s longer than most people he grew up with in Squirrel Hill spent getting their college degrees. It’s longer than a presidential term.
He doesn’t have to do it. If he were willing to cooperate with prosecutors, he could spend the next five years watching television with his wife and going to work and getting high with whatever friends he’d still have if he made that decision.
I recently picked up a T-shirt I plan to wear when I give interviews and lectures about other topics. It features a picture of one of the orange lockboxes used by Daniel’s crew and a single four-word sentence. Honor has a price.