Running for president, Joe Biden promised he’d decriminalize marijuana and pardon federal offenders. So why is Daniel Muessig about to go to prison for five years?
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.”
To Read The Rest Of This Article By Ben Burgis on The Nation