The morning of May 24, 2019, found me running for my life through the traditional Jewish enclave of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the neighborhood of stately red brick mansions and large dun-colored apartment houses where I’d grown up, come of age, learned to freestyle at the benches near the Murray Avenue Post Office and smoked my first furtive joints in the alleys that connect its winding, terraced streets.
The occasion for my flight was that the FBI had pulled over a truck leaving my stash house at 5524 Covode Street, a rust brick apartment house down a cobbled road from the Yeshiva. That truck contained $469,475, and based on the alert I’d received from a trailing driver they’d neglected to interdict; I knew something horrific was about to transpire. The stash apartment had about 245 lbs. of marijuana just delivered and another 159 odd lbs. sitting in orange Ridgid lock boxes bolted to the damp floor of a separate garage below the level I paced on. My vision blurred with panic as I tried to reason with the other two guys there that this wasn’t an accidental pullover and that whoever effected it would soon be at the door in force. The man who had the apartment in his name told me to leave. He said his brother would follow me soon after and he would hunker down until the danger had in theory subsided and then clear out under cover of darkness. I tried a few more times to reason with him before he snapped:
“GO! Walk out the door casual, and as soon as you get off this block, RUN!”
The surveillance cameras, operated by task force agents in a blacked-out car just off the front door of the building — which, when coupled with cooperator testimony, would put me in federal prison — filmed me for the last time doing just that: a faux casual amble up the city stairs that connected Covode to Hobart Street and a 90-degree left pivot into a sprint. They had also captured me that morning as I arrived at the apartment house and when I helped load a box of cash into the car. I didn’t know it then, but my fate was sealed. Doom would just take a long time to arrive. I’d lived 37 years to have my life as I knew it ended in a few dozen seconds.
As I sprinted for the supposed shelter of Schenley Park, its leafy splendor lost on me in my panic, I had several thoughts: I had to see if they were going to raid or not. I had to make sure anyone that got popped got bailed out. I had to stay out long enough to make this all happen, and I had to get back to my wife. My wife. My love. I had to make it back to her. My sprint bogged to a gasping stumble as my phone rang. I answered it:
“They’re here,” my then-friend said.
“I’ll get you out,” I replied.
“See ya,” he said as the line dropped.
Who did this? What agency? How did they get to us? Was I going to prison? Local? State? Couldn’t be federal. My thoughts left the litany of crises at hand. I just wanted to see my wife again. We’d been together for almost two decades. Part of me even then knew that I was done for — but I needed to be with her. I couldn’t let them catch me. I had to get home. So, I ran and I ran and I summoned up every last ounce of will left in my body and I ran.
But federal it was. I saw the eagle stamped atop the search warrant, and when I consulted with my attorney friends, their verdict was succinct: Feds were on it. This case was getting indicted.
A few weeks later, on June 12, 2019, the original two arrestees — one of the men who had departed the Covode Street apartment after me, another customer who hadn’t been there that day, and over two dozen other people that I’d never known, seen or spoken to — were indicted in the Western District of Pennsylvania for a litany of charges.
The FBI and county police had been investigating a street gang in a mill town near the periphery of the city that trafficked in harder drugs like fentanyl, crack, powder cocaine and processed heroin. They purchased marijuana off a man who purchased marijuana off a customer of ours who picked up marijuana from the stash house. That was the architecture of our demise.
There’s nothing to debate in the facts of the case except for the purposely disingenuous tack that the national media used when reporting that we cannabis traffickers were somehow in league with a group that none of us knew existed prior to the indictment. But the mainstream media used prohibitionist logic and laughably relied on the press releases from the U.S. attorney to create single sourced stories that fit the click-reliant “crime and punishment” narrative which gets them optimal eyeballs in the lean times of their waning influence.
Their aim was achieved. Every nonviolent cannabis-related indictee was tied into something the public found far more sinister, allowing law enforcement to get their cannabis arrests and cash seizures while minimizing the public backlash that now follows such cases being pursued independent of other criminality. They need a more dangerous hook to lay their targeting of cannabis providers on and the media always helps them find it. All on the cannabis side of this indictment would forever be branded as operating in concert with a “heroin gang.”
I had the added liability of my previous viral fame. As a former left-wing criminal defense attorney, I created a viral ad for my services titled “Thanks Dan.” In the ad, myself and a bevy of actual streetwise friends and associates mocked the justice system and law enforcement while reveling in beating the man at his own game. A poor prior calling card for a future pot kingpin, to be sure. But in my defense, name a millennial who knows what their next job will be a few years down the road?
The summer of 2019 was one of hazy paranoia. My wife and I were followed, first intermittently, and then near constantly. People I’d done business with in the past called my phone wanting to reminisce about the deals of old. The unspoken motivation for their sudden nostalgia was that the conversation was being monitored by law enforcement. They were cooperating, fishing on orders from their handlers to further implicate me and up my pending charges.
The fright ratcheted by the day. At this point, my family knew, and despite their disappointment, they supported me. I tried to move on as best I could. I turned my back on my past while still offering loyalty and support to those already ensnared who reciprocated with their friendship. But those numbers ticked down to zero. Soon I received word that a superseding indictment was coming for up to 10 new defendants. It was rumored to be for cannabis suppliers, which I knew would mean myself and my friends.
Tired of the fear and the strain on my wife, mother, father and self, I reached out via my counsel and asked to turn myself in. I sought no special favors or treatment. I wanted no deal. I just asked to plead out to the same charges leveled against the others and get this hellish limbo over with. I was willing to take responsibility. I was not willing to inform on others or cooperate.
The government’s response was as chilling as it was predictable: I could not surrender on said charges. I could either come in and rat or sit and wait to get indicted. I knew all the people that I surmised they’d targeted. My plea alone had no utility to them. The feds wanted my testimony.
They would not have it. I would never tell on anyone and I sure as hell wouldn’t tell on any cannabis suppliers, dealers, users or growers. And I’d rather die than tell on my friends.
Federal prosecutors operate so effectively on the basis of cooperation. Whether its active, like wearing a wire and conducting sting operations in conjunction with law enforcement; passive, like codefendants going to the grand jury on still unindicted coconspirators, which allows the prosecutors to build new indictments in secret; or safety valving, wherein first-time nonviolent offenders get a coveted break from mandatory sentencing in exchange for relating the details of their conspiracy to the prosecution in a limited proffer — the entire machine runs on information dispensed for leniency. For those who choose not to utilize these means, the penalties are draconian in the extreme. A mandatory minimum of five years for a 100-kilo marijuana conspiracy and a maximum of 40 years. A mandatory minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life on a 1,000-kilo marijuana conspiracy. With this hammer, the federal authorities have incredible power to apply in the pursuit of cooperation.
With my decision made and the die cast, we sat in misery and waited. Fall turned to winter and nothing happened. Spring came and the world was plunged into the pandemic, a phenomenon that we scarcely feared due to the larger agony that lurked on the periphery.
We called it the “sea monster.” It swam in black waters and you’d only glimpse hints of its existence. A wake here. An enormous malevolent eye there. A tentacle, and then the sound of a ship being sucked into the deep with a loss of all hands.
Even under this strain, we tried to make a life. I started a legitimate business and continued the volunteering efforts we’d begun in 2019, delivering food to seniors in Squirrel Hill throughout the pandemic. I’d made these moves not in hopes of a reduced sentence, but to create a new way forward for us and to undertake self-directed change from within. Months passed. A year. An election. We began to breathe. The terror started to dissipate and I started to make amends with my family.
Rays of hope filtered down to us. We began to dream and plan. We felt blessed, and while traumatized, we swore we’d do our best to live life the way we should have before. The terror of that run on May 24 no longer haunted me every morning with the panic attacks and nightmares of those who hadn’t survived. (One of the men from Covode hanged himself under indictment, leaving behind a wife, three children, eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild.).
The final piece for us was to start a family. We applied for adoption and surmounted every hurdle presented. Now we had feelings of joy. Real happiness. Us, parents. We were so excited. So ready. Maybe we’d made it. Maybe there was a god.
On August 23, 2021, at 9:45pm, my phone rang. It was my federal defense attorney, a man I hadn’t spoken with in two years. My stomach plunged and my vision swam. There could be one reason for him reaching out. I turned to my wife and told her I was sorry. She told me she loved me.
I answered the phone and was swallowed up by the sea monster in one gulp.
A 100-kilo marijuana conspiracy. Same charge I offered to plead out to in 2019.
I was pilloried in the papers for telling the feds that their system was in fact a joke in a 7-year-old YouTube video.
I accepted responsibility for my actions. I never sought to pass my issues onto anyone else. I once said their laws are arbitrary, and now in fulfillment of that contention, I will be sentenced to prison for something that is de facto legal in our nation. While billionaires get richer breaking the same law I did, I’ll rot. Away from my wife and family, not even allowed a hug or kiss due to COVID.
When the prosecution released their sentencing memo, my suspicions were confirmed. While it mentioned my cannabis “crimes,” the majority of its venomous content was focused on my prior commercial. An advertisement and satire that had nothing to do with the current charges or my weed dealing career. Their repeated attempts to flip me were unsuccessful, the assistant United States attorney instead launched a tantrum by document trying once again to smear me with irrelevant First Amendment protected conduct that was legal. Now it was clear. Their motivations for pursuing my case over two and a half years were fueled by law enforcement animus at someone who refused to respect their system. Any shred of pretense was stripped away as each heading of the memo contained a quote from the “Thanks Dan” ad. They had spent hundreds of man hours and untold tax-payer dollars to get me for a crime I had offered to plead to years ago.
They said that hitting me with the minimum would promote respect for the law due to the fact I said that “laws are arbitrary” in the ad. So, to muzzle me they sentenced me under the most arbitrary law they had going. Irony is often lost on fascists however. My refusal to cooperate and help them save face threw them into a lather.
That desperate run for freedom failed.
If you think I am undeserving of mercy or consideration, then I won’t disabuse you of your assertion. I’m not special. There are 40,000 cannabis prisoners in the U.S. today and almost 3,000 in the federal system. Many people stand up and catch monstrous sentences despite being betrayed themselves. I told on no one. Many people told on me.
President Joe Biden has had numerous letters and proclamations demanding all federal cannabis offenders be pardoned in accordance with his campaign promises. As of this writing, he has pardoned two turkeys — and no people.
Cannabis prohibition has destroyed my life and that of my wife. I may be one of the last cannabis prisoners. I hope I am the last one. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.