Dan Muessig keeps it real.
Like, really fucking real.
Dan ran “the Store,” Pittsburgh’s destination, invite-only underground cannabis dispensary, 7-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day in the middle of an East End neighborhood for six straight years.
Dan is also Dos Noun, the underground indie rapper. That’s “dos” like “two” in Spanish, and he was second to few, having toured Europe and rapped with the greatest at Scribble Jam, Hip-Hop’s long-gone Woodstock.
Infamously, Dan was a Jewish kid from Squirrel Hill who went to Pitt Law and hyped up his practice with a viral commercial so disdainfully subversive of society’s governing laws that it would make Hammurabi himself put down his chisel and say, “damn dude, chill.”
“I had the trap,” says Muessig. “We only sold weed but we were clocking, 1980s style.”
That’s why Dan goes to prison today: keeping it unrelentingly real.
That, and the 404 pounds of marijuana federal agents found inside a Covode Street stash house in May, 2019.
“I’m an interesting Rorschach test, I guess, to some extent, because based on how you perceive me, it would probably say a lot about your politics or how you feel socially,” says Muessig.
“Older people are like, he made that commercial and he sold weed, and now he’s got to go to prison. And to younger people, they comment all the time and say, OK, can this guy get any cooler?”
Everyone has been dunking on Dan lately: haters, the Washington Post, and worst of all, the attorneys at the US District Court for the Western District of PA.
Ambrose Bierce called lawyers a class of people “skilled in the circumvention of the law,” and until 2019, Dan was one of the best at it: not the practice of law, necessarily, but how to get around it.
Dan ran in hip-hop circles, where only the braggadocious survive. So after he graduated from law school in 2013, he put out an ad designed to catch the attention of a certain type of client with a special kind of need.
Dan’s specialty? Street knowledge.
Scene: a relieved man walks down the courthouse steps. His friends dap him up, hand him a phone and a stack of cash. They smile at the camera, thumbs up: “Thanks, Dan!”
Two guys round a corner, nines at the ready, about to ruin someone’s day. Just before the ski masks go on: “Thanks, Dan!”
A john pulls up to a sex worker. Both of them, one after the other — say it with me now:
“It was a really weird commercial to go viral,” he said. “This was like, a four-minute long ad for legal services. It was really like a fucking SNL skit.”
It blew up, with a hundred thousand views in the first couple days. By then, it had been four years since Saul Goodman first appeared on Breaking Bad, and the “real-life Saul” comparisons were coming in. Except these were Dan’s real-life associates, filming an ad outside Dan’s actual trap house.
The old head with gray hair who looks like Willie Nelson’s half-brother in a Steelers jacket? That was Dale, who operated the Store. Dale, rest in peace, was a labor radical with Network to Save the Mon/Ohio Valley, once implicated in a “skunk oil balloon bombing of a Christmas Eve dinner in Shadyside Presbyterian Church.”
The big guy with the mask? That’s Big Lonn: rapper, jiu-jitsu entrepreneur, and Wiz Khalifa’s bodyguard. The young guy with the long braids? That’s Dan’s cousin.
“There were a lot of real-ass dudes in that video,” Dan reminisces. “People didn’t really understand how insane that commercial was.”
And that’s the less outrageous part of it. The second half is all Muessig, keeping it realer than ever:
“I’m the Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Pittsburgh criminals hire when they commit crimes.”
In 2014, Dan kept it real. Today, after his guilty plea, the prosecution, and the media, it seemed, were taking a special pleasure in using his own lines from his ad against him.
This one, which the prosecution used to introduce their sentencing memorandum, seemed especially devastating: ”Consequences, they sure suck don’t they?”
When Dan went down on May 24, 2019, it didn’t matter that Pittsburgh had already decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal possession. And it didn’t matter that medical use was legalized in Pennsylvania three years earlier. Cannabis was, and remains, Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has “a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”
Dan is quick to point out that the legitimate dispensaries popping up in neighborhoods across Pittsburgh are in violation of the same federal laws that he was.
The difference? Dan wasn’t licensed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
That, and he talked all that shit.
Who better to make an example of?
“They wanted to turn the guy from the commercial into a fucking rat so they could prove a point about their stupid fucking system,” he says.
But Dan wouldn’t rat. Because Dan keeps it real.
By his own accounting, as well as the prosecution’s, Dan ran a small cannabis empire in Pittsburgh.
“This isn’t just some guy selling weed,” he says. “This is a group of dozens of people. Most of the other guys didn’t have other jobs. Our only job was to get you guys weed.”
The most public part of the enterprise was the Store. It didn’t need a fancy name; everyone knew what it was hitting for: “Oh, you are going to the store-store? Hell yeah, pick me up a cut.”
The Store was in the basement of one of those century-old red brick homes on a residential street a few blocks back from Baum Boulevard.
Everyone went to the Store: Steelers, lawyers, rappers — even journalists — but most of all, ordinary Yinzers.
You still can’t legally purchase brownies or other types of marijuana edibles in Pennsylvania, but years earlier the Store sold these Rice Krispies treats that could induce an out-of-body experience if you weren’t careful. They sold concentrates and big fat pre-roll joints thick as gorilla fingers. They offered a fair price for excellent flower that they kept in big glass jars that they’d weigh out in front of you in the uh, foyer, between the laundry room and what seemed like Dale’s living room, complete with classic rock posters and a Steelers jersey on the wall. Sometimes, they’d throw in a couple extra grams for free; talk about client retention.
And for six years, everything was cool. Until it wasn’t.
According to Muessig’s sentencing memos, in January 2019 federal agents began to surveille and wiretap individuals associated with Braddock’s SCO gang, which trafficked in heroin and cocaine. The gang sold marijuana, too, which they got from a guy, who was getting it from another guy, who was getting it from Dan.
Keep in mind Dan traded in a business where people generally don’t ask a lot of questions. Most consumers dealt with Dale at the store; but if you traded in pounds instead of ounces or eighths, you dealt with Dan.
On May 24, 2019, with his associates under surveillance, federal agents unbeknowingly filmed Dan carrying a cardboard box to a Dodge Ram. When the truck was pulled over by the feds a few blocks away, they found a box that looked exactly like the one Dan was carrying. It had $469,000 inside.
“I was only there that day because the count was off,” he says. “If I knew what [the people buying it] were doing, I wouldn’t have sold it to them.”
A spotter following the truck tipped off Dan that it had been pulled over, its driver detained.
He knew it was over. Not just the 404 pounds of cannabis or $469,000 in cash snagged by the federales (he didnt know which branch of law enforcement it was yet) but all of it. Not just the store, not just his entire operation, but his entire life as he knew it.
“It felt like Pearl Harbor,” he said. “There was no way this could happen. There was no way the feds would bust a weed-only operation in 2019.”
He made it across town to his wife and they lived on the lam while the dust settled, coordinating legal representation for those who got busted and trying to figure out what to do next.
He knew he was done, but it took more than two years, until July 2021, for the charges to come down: conspiring to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana from April 2019 to May 2019, and possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana on May 24, 2019.
The charge came with a mandatory minimum sentence of 60 months, or 5 years. With good time, he’ll probably serve closer to 4, and there’s the possibility another year might get shaved off if he completes a drug abuse program.
He could have got even less time, but he refused to proffer with prosecution:
“I said, go fuck yourselves, I’m not fucking turning anyone in. I’m not turning anyone in for cannabis. I’ll go do my time like a fucking man.”
It’s 4:20 on 4/20, three weeks before his surrender, and Dan’s at Aiello’s.
He hasn’t smoked since his lawyer called to tell him he was indicted. The whole ordeal “took the joy out of it,” he says.
He goes in on two slices of cheese and another of the stuffed pizza. “One Thing Leads to Another” plays over the radio. On the muted local TV newscast, a headline is visible: “Human activity could lead to ‘insect apocalypse.’”
Dan doesn’t fiddle while the world around him burns. He’s still got shit to handle. Just because you’re going to prison, he says, the minutiae of life doesn’t stop. So he kills time like the rest of us. He pays bills and buys groceries. He spends a lot of time on his phone and social media. He’s shared a few memes, written an op-ed, and granted some interviews. But mostly, he’s just depressed.
“I certainly couldn’t have imagined it would be this,” he says. “This is worse than my worst nightmares.”
Dan grew up in New York City and Easton, Pennsylvania before his family moved to Squirrel Hill when he was around the age of 12.
“There was like a really crackin’ street culture in Squirrel Hill and Oakland,” he says. Dan graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 2000, after spending his formative teenage years “doing street urchin shit, like rapping, tagging and fighting.”
After high school, Dan moved to Philadelphia and graduated from Temple, still on his “Luke Skywalker quest” to be the best freestyle battle emcee he could be. (In 2003, a Manny Theiner music review for City Paper calls Dos “the next Pittsburgh emcee who could be playing indie rap on a national stage.”)
In Philly, he ran with some “really tough, streetwise Jewish guys that were doing the exact same shit” he was, except this was Philly, Dan says, where the street culture is more developed and the game itself is bigger, crazier, and more violent than in Pittsburgh.
“All my friends in Philly started selling weed almost immediately, because it was a good way to make money in college,” he says. “And, you know, the Temple weed trade was enormous. You’re talking about a city of kids who smoke weed every day. You were going to make a shit ton of money.”
After a while, Dan says, some of his associates were falling prey to corrupt Philly cops who were using “gangland tactics” to rob dealers they thought might be a relatively soft touch — Jewish cannabis dealers seemed to fit the bill — and with the heat on, at the age of 26, Dan moved back to Pittsburgh to kickstart his legal career and Pittsburgh cannabis empire.
It’s May 8, 2022, three days before his surrender. How does the condemned man spend his last days of freedom?
“There’s no relief,” he writes. “I thought this had ended at some point. Now it’s an interminable multi-year nightmare that has yet to commence. I’m pretty flattened.”
One thing still wasn’t clear to me.
Dan graduated from law school and opened the Store in 2013. He said that, after his ad, it was pretty much impossible for him to practice law. He had passed the bar, but his notoriety meant he wouldn’t be able to do right by his clients. He also talked about how it isn’t quite as easy to get out of the game as it appears, and it didn’t seem like he had an exit plan. He kept it humble, but relished being that dude, and faced with a choice between being the man, and being an effective but ordinary lawyer, the choice was clear:
Dan kept it real.
As outspoken as he is, Dan is intensely private about his family as he attempts to shield them from the mess he’s made.
“That was my whole thing, man. Typical Jewish crook: I’d be home at like six o’clock every night to have dinner with my wife.”
He’s written publicly regarding how his pending incarceration prevented him and his wife from adopting a child and starting a family.
In the end, he admits, she was the only one who turned out to be right all along.
“She had this innate understanding that something horrible was going to happen. And like, all of my explanations, all my male ‘well, actually’s’ held no weight. I wasn’t good. Things weren’t going to shake out.”
All things considered, it could be a lot worse. He’s probably got a bag waiting for him. His wife and family lives in the area and can visit him with regularity. And by his own admission, FCI Morgantown, the minimum security prison he’s heading, lives up to the “Club Fed” nickname.
“When you turn yourself in you literally walk into a lobby like you’re going to the DMV. It’s like, there’s no bars. There’s no cells. If I don’t get in trouble in Morgantown and they don’t transfer me, I might literally go through a five-year mandatory federal prison sentence for, like, organized crime level drug dealing, and never wear handcuffs.”
Dan’s not sure how much time he’ll ultimately serve, but he’s steeling himself for the full five years and wonders how he’ll spend his days.
“I used to be super fit, and run marathons,” he says, “Maybe I’ll get back in shape, or maybe I’ll just be super fucking depressed and sit around and read for 15 hours a day.”
A lot of people will see Dan’s surrender today as his just desserts, the consequences of his actions, the lawful rendering of justice passed down on an unrepentant criminal.
To those who knew him best, the hip-hop heads and deep dear friends, his wife, his family, and those who will miss him most, they’ll see it as what happens when keeping it real goes wrong.
Coming soon: Pt. 2: No Pardons, No Votes. Sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss it:
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.