I was running for my life in the traditional Jewish enclave Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 24, 2019. 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 FBI pulled over a truck that was leaving my stash house at 5624 Covode Street. It was a rusty brick apartment down a cobbled path 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 contained 245 lbs. The stash apartment contained about 245 lbs of marijuana and another 159 odd. I was sitting in orange Ridgid lockboxes, which were bolted to the damp floor below the level at which I was moving. 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. I was told to go by the man who owned the apartment. He said that his brother would follow me soon and he would hunker until the danger had subsided. After that, he would clear out under cover. I tried to reason with him a few more times 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 also captured me as I arrived at the apartment and when I helped load cash into the car. I didn’t know it then, but my fate was sealed. It would take a while for the day of doom to arrive. I’d lived 37 years to have my life as I knew it ended in a few dozen seconds.
I was sprinting for Schenley Park, my panic causing it to lose its leafy beauty on me, and I had several thoughts. I had to ensure that everyone who was popped was bailed out. I had no choice but to stay there long enough to make all this happen. And I had a responsibility to my wife. My wife. My love. I had no choice but to return her love. My sprint was reduced to a gasping halt when 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 it? What agency? How did they reach us? Was I going into prison? Local? State? Couldn’t be federal. My thoughts drifted away from the litany of crises. I just wanted my wife back. 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 back home. I ran and ran until I was exhausted.
But it was federal. I saw the eagle stamp atop the search warrant and, after consulting with my attorneys friends, they concluded that the Feds were on it. This case was being 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 cops were investigating a street gang that was operating in a nearby mill town and supplying harder drugs such crack, fentanyl, and powder cocaine. They bought marijuana from a man who had purchased marijuana from a customer of ours. That was the architecture that would lead to 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 goal was achieved. The public saw something far more sinister in every nonviolent cannabis-related criminal indictee. This allowed law enforcement get their cannabis arrests, cash seizures, and minimized the public backlash. They need a stronger hook to target cannabis providers, 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 was also subject to the liability of my 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. It’s a poor calling card for the future pot kingpin. I will defend myself. Can you name a millennial who can predict their next job a few years from now?
The summer 2019 was a season of paranoia. My wife and me were followed at first, then almost constantly. People I’d done business with in the past called my phone wanting to reminisce about the deals of old. The reason they were suddenly nostalgic was not stated. It was because the conversation was being recorded by law enforcement. They were cooperating, following orders from their handlers to further indict me and increase my pending charges.
The fear grew worse each day. My family knew and supported me, despite their disappointment. I tried my best to move on. I turned my back and offered support and loyalty to those who had ensnared me in the past. Eventually, those numbers dropped to zero. Soon, I was informed that a superseding arrest warrant was being issued for up to 10 additional defendants. It was rumored it would be for cannabis sellers, which I knew would apply to me and my friends.
Tired of the fear and strain on my wife and mother, father, and self, I reached for counsel and asked to be turned in. I didn’t ask for any special treatment or favors. I wanted no deal. I asked to plead guilty to the same charges as the others to end this hellish limbo. I was willing and able to accept responsibility. I was NotWilling to share information with others or collaborate.
The government’s response was as chilling as it was predictable: I could not surrender on said charges. I could either sit and wait for indictment or come in and rat. I knew all the people that I surmised they’d targeted. They didn’t find my plea useful. My testimony was required by the feds.
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 work so well 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. These penalties can be severe for those who don’t use them. A mandatory minimum five years and maximum 40 years for a 100 kilo marijuana conspiracy. A mandatory minimum of 10 year and a maximum of lifetime for a 1,000-kilo cannabis conspiracy. Federal authorities have extraordinary power to pursue cooperation with this hammer.
We waited in misery until I made my decision. The fall turned into winter, but nothing happened. The world was plunged into the pandemic in spring, which we could not foresee due to the greater agony lurking on the periphery.
We called it the “sea monster.” It swam in black waters and you’d only glimpse hints of its existence. Here is a wake. An evil eye there. A tentacle, then the sound of a ship being sucked deep into the sea with all hands lost.
We tried to make a better life, despite the hardship. 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. One year. An election. We began to feel the air. The terror began to subside and I began making amends with my family.
We were flooded with hope. 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 Covode men committed suicide under indictment. He left behind a wife and three children, eight grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.).
The final piece was to start our family. We applied for adoption and overcame every obstacle. We felt joy. Real happiness. Us, parents. We were so excited. We were so ready. Maybe we’d made it. Maybe there was a god.
My phone rang on August 23, 2021 at 9:45pm. It was my federal defense attorney, a man I hadn’t spoken with in two years. My stomach sank and my vision blurred. He could have reached out for something. I turned to my wife, and I said sorry. I was told she loved me by her husband.
I answered the telephone and was swallowed whole by the sea monster in a single gulp.
A 100-kilo marijuana conspiracy. Same charge I offered my plead to in 2019.
I was mocked in the papers for telling federal agents that their system was a joke in a YouTube video from 7 years ago.
I took responsibility. I did not intend to pass on my problems to anyone else. I once claimed that their laws were arbitrary. Now, in fulfillment of that contention I will be sentenced for something that is legally allowed in our country. While billionaires get richer breaking the same law I did, I’ll rot. My wife and my family are not allowed to hug or kiss me because of COVID.
My suspicions were confirmed by the prosecution’s sentencing memo. While it mentioned my cannabis “crimes,” the majority of its venomous content was focused on my prior commercial. It was satire and an advertisement that had nothing to do the current charges or my marijuana dealing career. After repeated attempts to flip me failed, the assistant United States Attorney launched a tantrum document after document trying to smear my First Amendment protected conduct that was legal. It was now clear. Over two and a-half years, their motivations for following my case were driven by law enforcement animus toward someone who would not 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 hours and untold tax payer dollars to get me for a criminal offense I had offered to plead guilty 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. To silence me, they sentenced my under the most arbitrary law they had. Fascists often lose sight of irony, however. My refusal to cooperate and help them save faces threw them into a lather.
This desperate attempt to get freedom didn’t succeed.
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 almost 3,000 federal cannabis prisoners and 40,000 cannabis prisoner in the U.S. Many people are willing to stand up and get monstrous sentences, despite being betrayed. I didn’t tell anyone. Many people told me.
President Joe Biden has received many letters and proclamations asking for federal cannabis offenders to be pardoned as promised in his campaign promises. As of this writing, he has pardoned two turkeys — and no people.
My life and my wife’s have been destroyed by cannabis prohibition. I may be one of the last remaining cannabis prisoners. I hope I’m the last. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.