Mandatory Minimums

Man With No Criminal History Gets 5-Year Sentence for Selling Weed

The federal mandatory minimum didn't leave many options.

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Companies sold about $30.6 billion worth of legal marijuana last year, making cannabis one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. Marijuana arrests, as a consequence, are way down. None of that provides comfort, though, to a 40-year-old Pittsburgh man named Daniel Muessig, who faces five years in prison for selling weed. A former lawyer with no criminal history, Muessig pleaded guilty last year to federal charges of conspiring to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab sentenced Muessig on Tuesday, March 8, citing "the seriousness of the offense" and the need to "promote respect for the law."

Muessig was swept up in a far-reaching federal investigation into trafficking of cocaine and heroin when agents discovered more than 400 pounds of marijuana during a raid on "stash house" in Squirrel Hill on May 24, 2019. (Muessig admits to dealing marijuana but says he has never sold or taken harder drugs.) He escaped from the raid on foot and lived in limbo for more than two years. Gradually, his fear of going to prison gave way to hope; he and his wife, Laura Boyarsky, began the process of adopting a child. 

But everything changed when he was indicted last August and pleaded guilty in November. Federal law requires a minimum sentence of five years for his crimes. The mandatory minimum "removes any consideration of past history," says Morgan Fox, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORML, which supports the legalization of weed.

Muessig's case is unusual, but hardly unique. In FY 2020, federal courts sentenced 1,118 people for marijuana trafficking, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Some 62 percent were Hispanic and 18 percent were black.) "Federal prosecutors, generally, have not been prioritizing cannabis issues," Fox says. "But they have the ability to do so."

Last month, for example, Fayao "Paul" Rong, 51, was arrested and charged with trafficking large quantities of marijuana illegally grown in Oregon; if convicted, he faces a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence (due to the large quantities of marijuana involved). The vast majority of marijuana arrests (about 350,000 in 2020) were made at the state level, but most states allow judges discretion in sentencing.

To avoid the five-year minimum, Muessig could have provided evidence against others involved in the drug trafficking ring. He declined. "I'm not a snitch," he says. "It's against my moral code. No one is going to jail for marijuana on my watch if I can help it."

Muessig was raised in a middle-class home in Squirrel Hill, a tight-knit Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He first worked as a rapper, touring Europe and selling CDs and records. He then became a criminal defense lawyer, enjoying a few minutes of fame when he released a brash YouTube video featuring testimonials from men, who appeared to be his criminal pals, thanking him for getting them off the hook. "I may have a law degree, but I think like a criminal," Muessig says in the video. Slate called it "the best (or worst) lawyer commercial ever made."

When Muessig realized that the video might prejudice prosecutors and judges against him, he gave up on law and turned to what he knew: pot. Pennsylvania has not legalized marijuana for recreational use, but "people needed cannabis here," Muessig says. "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."

President Joe Biden said last year that "no one should go to jail for the use of a drug," but he's done little to curb the war on drugs. Biden and Congress could end all federal marijuana prosecutions by removing the drug from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is supposed to be reserved for dangerous drugs with no accepted medical use. Biden could additionally ask the Justice Department to halt marijuana prosecutions. He's also been urged by reformers to pardon federal prisoners who are now incarcerated for drug offenses. About two-thirds of Americans say they support marijuana legalization, according to Gallup.

Andrew DeAngelo, board chair of an advocacy group called The Last Prisoner Project and a supporter of Muessig, says, "Nobody should be locked up for weed. It's clearly wrong." DeAngelo and his brother Steve both served time for marijuana possession before they started the largest medical marijuana dispensary in Harborside, California. They've seen the business from every angle. Biden can't shake "the prohibitionist mindset," says Andrew. "We've just got to keep raising hell."

Muessig, for his part, is resigned to his fate. "I'll take my punishment like a man," he told the judge. His imprisonment will do little more than create a market opportunity for the next marijuana distributor in Pittsburgh.

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  1. >>President Joe Biden said ... but he's done little ...

    you write words like you believed Brandon

  2. also mandatory sentencing and jury 1a rights do not mix well.

  3. Dude's lucky he didn't protest at the wrong event.

  4. More than 100 Kilos... that's a million dollars of weed according to the first google hit for weed prices. Like 10 a gram on the street in Penn.

    I get the mandatory sentencing arguments, but this isn't a dude selling ditchweed shake to his neighbors or some buds he grew himself or something. The headline makes it sound like he is, but this is different. Imagine having a million dollars worth of beer for sale illegally.

    This example is shite. Find us some small timers who are getting locked up for 5 years and I bet you win more converts to the cause.

    1. I think the issue is less about the substance than the state not getting its cut.

      1. Ding ding ding. He didn't pay off the right people

        1. That's exactly it.

          This is a million dollars or more. That's big boy tax revenue. If I didn't report a million to the IRS, the Franchise Tax Board, or any other authority who normally got a cut, regardless of whether it was weed or anything else, there's going to be trouble.

          That makes this a weaker example than you'd expect from the headline.

          1. I understand your point. This is big trafficking, big tax evasion. But millions of dollars: I doubt it. To say so is police press release "logic." You don't move this quantity of cannabis a gram at a time. You sell it pounds at a time for much less. It's a business like any other, he had to buy the stuff, then sell the stuff and make a profit on the transactions. We can only speculate how much profit he would make, but to think $millions based on the street price isn't right.

            To take your beer example, imagine you have millions of dollars worth of beer. You had to buy or craft that beer. That's not free. You have to package, distribute and sell that beer. That's not free. And at those volumes you're probably selling wholesale in large volumes, so not getting the millions it's worth at retail. So how much are you making profit?

            So yeah, he was a big-time distributor. And he is probably making some big bucks (especially since it's tax free). But he is not profiting the street value.

          2. I also want to add. Despite my technicality above, your point stands. This is not a great case to bring sympathy to the cause.

            1. Sometimes I think Reason writers are of the opinion that people only read their headlines.

    2. You mean the drug war is ok if it's big enough?

      I see what Putin did wrong. He should have invaded China, or lobbed a few nukes around Europe or North America.

      1. What the fuck is this dude talking about? Did he post in the wrong thread or something?

    3. Find us some small timers who are getting locked up for 5 years and I bet you win more converts to the cause.

      Agreed.
      Anyone with that level of operation should have known he would have gotten on the system's radar -- and prepared accordingly.

  5. There's some things here that do not add up for me, and I'm unable to find more details at the moment. But there's enough here to let me know I'm missing part of the story.

    Looking around, I've found that this guy was running this operation for seemingly quite a while, and was doing well. When the FBI raided his stash house, they stopped a truck outside that $400K in cash in it. He had an actual drug ring, with employees and coworkers. And this is the big thing-I doubt anyone really cares about him selling a desired product at an agreed-upon price to consenting individuals, but he was not paying taxes on that illicit income. This is what the Feds are really mad about.

    That said, I've seen judges depart from sentencing guidelines before. If the judge had no discretion, I wonder why he's discussing "The seriousness of the offense" and the need to "promote respect of the law." That's irrelevant information for him to be opining about if his hands are tied in a sentencing hearing. It sounds like he was justifying a reason he's not acting rather than just handing out the bare minimum offense allowed under the law.

    It's possible I'm misunderstanding this. At some point I might try to actually read the statutes on sentencing, if I can figure out where they are in the law.

    1. "...but he was not paying taxes on that illicit income. This is what the Feds are really mad about."

      I'm sure you are right, that is what really matters here. The government did not get its cut.

      Or as someone so aptly put it, "pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered."

      1. Readers will observe the possessive pronoun in "its cut." Looters exploiting ignorance used mixed economy coercion to crush a harmless alternative to ethanol and opium. The defiant are singled out for cruel and unusual kidnapping and torture at the hands of coercion-for-hire Kleptocracy agents protected by political appointees involved in criminal takings under color of "asset forfeiture sharing." Yet 96% of votes counted say "keep robbing us!"

    2. Yeah, this appears to be an operation that would be illegal at pretty much every state level too. You can't do that shit in Washington, where it's legal. You def can't do it in Oregon... where it's legal and so on. I suspect this has far less to do with the Demon Weed and far more to do with flouting financial rules and regulations. Hell, he'd be strung up by a rope in my legal-weed state because his product hasn't been properly safety tested.

    3. And this is the big thing-I doubt anyone really cares about him selling a desired product at an agreed-upon price to consenting individuals, but he was not paying taxes on that illicit income. This is what the Feds are really mad about.

      Exactly. People get thrown in jail for tax evasion all the time. Somehow, if it involves pot, it's suddenly OK?

  6. The difference between a liberal and a conservative is the liberal thinks of someone as a first time offender and the conservative knows it was the first time he was caught.

    1. In point of fact, both of the violent looters described are the predatory offenders. The individual victim sells a product they want to men and women willing and able to pay for it. Consider how terrified Republican National Socialists are now that their looters' chances of being turned out of office by libertarian spoiler votes are growing faster than they can get infiltrators to turn the LP platform into a clown act.

  7. "I may have a law degree, but I think like a criminal," Muessig says in the video. Slate called it "the best (or worst) lawyer commercial ever made."

    Now it's the funniest.

  8. "Muessig was swept up in a far-reaching federal investigation into trafficking of cocaine and heroin"

    "To avoid the five-year minimum, Muessig could have provided evidence against others involved in the drug trafficking ring. He declined. "I'm not a snitch," he says. "It's against my moral code. No one is going to jail for marijuana on my watch if I can help it.""

    I'm going to do your job for you. This is what you should have investigated. He was targeted on suspicion of COCAINE AND HEROIN, they got him on massive quantities of weed (400 pounds is quite a bit), and they offered him a deal if he gave info on other dealers. Other dealers who were...wait for it...

    PART OF A COCAINE AND HEROIN INVESTIGATION

    He could be innocent. Maybe he did nothing other than deal weed. I seriously doubt it. Even if he didn't, he clearly knows something. Makes sense considering he had access to the black market and knew how to traffic large amounts of weed. Similar trafficking strategies apply for other drugs. That's probably why the feds went after him. They knew he had a network and that same network, even if it wasn't him directly, probably deals cocaine and heroin.

    We all want legal weed here, but that doesn't mean we have to use strawmen "gubmints is eVuL xD" arguments either.

    1. The sockpuppet is today's version of Christian Front fanatics defending Christian National Socialist mistreatment of "selfish" Jews who, after all, were probably part of the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy to pollute the Aryan race fer shoor. Every other magazine flings them onto the pavement chin-first. Only Reason lets them parade altruist collectivism and the initiation of force all day, every day, under the digital version of klan hoods.

  9. None of that provides comfort, though, to a 40-year-old Pittsburgh man named Daniel Muessig, who faces five years in prison for selling weed.

    So effing what? I'd face many years in prison if I didn't pay my taxes.

    If Muessig wants to deal in pot, he should do so according to the law or face a lengthy prison sentence, in particular given that the guy is a lawyer.

  10. Who amongst us hasn't woken up with no prior criminal history and just decided to start selling tons of weed out of a stash house?

  11. Well, if selling marijuana is illegal, it is illegal. So stop doing it. Instead, make an effort to legalize marijuana and then set up your big time dealing operation.

    What I am seeing among too many libertarians is a delusional attitude. Just because we think something should be legal, libertarians go on the assumption that it is legal. Doesn't work that way in reality, as this fellow (and many more) found out.

    Put down that bong and become a pro-legalization activist.

  12. I have witnessed an attorney being sentenced to years in prison over plant leaves. I also witnessed a healthy young citizen sentenced to half a century in jail for some plant leaf soakings. So I never pass up the opportunity to tell families that ONLY libertarian party candidates demand the release of persons railroaded into cages by pseudoscience and elections rigged by subsidies for the initiation of harmful and deadly force. Like Fat Freddy sez: Register and Vote!

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