The last free words of a cannabis prisoner

My friend Daniel Muessig went to prison today.

A former criminal defense attorney himself, he sold cannabis in Pennsylvania, a state where it’s legal. But it’s still illegal federally, and now he’s spending the next 5 years of his life in a cage, torn from his family. He left me the letter below to share with you. They are his parting words. Share them with anyone who still doesn’t understand how the War on Drugs is destroying lives.

To hear the whole story of what happened to him, listen to my interview with Dan, or read one of the articles linked below the letter.

To all free people,

By the time you read this I’ll be inside a federal prison for the first day of my five year sentence for cannabis trafficking.

The last few weeks have been a dystopic and sickening blur as I sought to wind down what was left of my life as a nominally free man.

Tonight will be the last night I sleep next to my wife in several years and tomorrow will be the last time we kiss, touch, or hold one another until I’m free or COVID restrictions cease, an unlikely prospect given the rapacious and adaptable nature of the virus and the utter recalcitrance of the staff to be properly vaccinated. My prison is in “Let’s Go Brandon” country and little as I like Biden I at least agree people should be vaccinated.

This small digression was to provide context for why I will most likely pass my first few weeks to a month inside in quarantine, unable to leave my dorm, obtain commissary, or interact with my new environment. I probably won’t have access to much else save a bunk and a few rancid meals a day until such time as I’m deemed fit to enter the compound and begin my prison life in earnest. The fact I’m vaxxed and double boosted is meaningless although it may keep me alive through the inevitable multiple COVID cases I will be infected with during my sojurn in the human petri dish sans medical care that is prison in America.

My release date will be almost 5 years to the day I walk in, whenever they bother to update it.

Now my personal space will be truncated to a bunk. I will answer largely to a number, stand to be counted, wear only a uniform, and have my day subject to the whim and will of staff, guards, and counselors.

My life in any sense one would want to live it is over for quite a while.

Some people find meaning in this suffering. They rise above it and forge an architecture of righteousness and purpose. Others, poisoned by the assaultive nature of confinement and its incessant aggressions, humiliations, depredations, and losses oscillate between depression and rage, their souls brittle and unable to ever embark any meaningful joys or salutory impulses like patience or peace. The former exit emboldened with a mission to do good. The latter with a wish to die.

I don’t know which I’ll be. I know which I aspire to. But any prediction smacks of the premature.

I can only do what every convict with a release date can do: take it day by day.

For how many days? I do not know.

I don’t know the future. I do know pain.

I’ve experienced agony behind this process that I cannot adequately describe. My abilities fall so short to convey the terror, rage, helplessness, loss, and stultifying, suicidal depression that takes hold of one when a Damoclean sword hangs over one’s head for years on end.

My wife and I strove so mightily to create a new life for ourselves. Away from the risk and pain of my previous life and line of work.

There were some beautiful moments inside of that interstitial fever dream of a life.

We tried to adopt a child. We stood in the high desert Mesa near Taos and hugged narrow mountain passes to siesta at Alpine lakes.

We smoked chopper joints at the rocky Maine coast and watched the spray break on the gray ziggaraut of rock that jutted like an alien edifice or battlement, crenelated and speckled with tidal pools suspended at heights far above the rolling floor of green glassed thunder that leapt at impact.

We saw seals roost at the coves in La Jolla and watched a technicolor sun paint the palms each night.

We sat on a loamy berm above Algiers Point New Orleans with colorful overpainted Queen Anne’s and shotgun bungalows lifted four feet off the dusty ground and watched Oil Tankers and and barges wend their way down the placid, muddied, riverine highway of the Mississippi.

The copper adobe azure sky with Pueblo Terra Cotta of an Indian village outside of Santa Fe and the black glass glacis of the stratotowers of Midtown Manhattan.

We went everywhere COVID would let us post Vax because we knew on some base, elemental level that our world was fragile. One phone call would end it like the Death Star’s laser pulverizing Alderaan.

And one humid night after a mundane day in what would going to be a beautiful life that call came.

We lost our child to be, our sanity, peace, hope, and future.

My refusal to cooperate is well documented. We don’t have to masticate that morsel again.

Instead I want you to know that my mother felt frail when I hugged her goodbye and she shook when she wept. She felt leaflike in my arms. Her 300lb son hugging her 90lb frame while we both sobbed.

My father cried in a way I’d never seen him do in my entire 40 years. His grief so raw and seismic that it almost separated my feet from the ground when it pulsed like orange magma from steaming crater.

I didn’t want to cry after I left them. I wanted to die. I never wanted to see that again and know I caused it. But I did. This did.

My wife and I passed our last night in loving embrace. Whispering our dreams to each other. Things many of you take for granted. Peace. Freedom. Hope. A chance to be together again. I haven’t left her side since 2003 for more than a few months on tour and now I will be gone years.

The gods gave Odysseus and Penelope an eternal night at one point. But no delphic deities touched here. Ours ends at dawn.

She’s my world. And I’m leaving her.

She should have my presence and protection. My love and attention. Instead I leave her with a tear spattered kiss and depart.

I met some of the fellas and said goodbye.

We hugged and slapped backs.

Til the next time, we said. We joked about past travails… the bum deals and the near misses. The fast money and the teeth cracking Ls.

I on boarded a rapid fire stream of advice about prison life as they imparted their wisdom and my friend called from Otisville.

Get your Pax # he said.

112# gets you on the payphone. You’ll be quarantined. Stay level.

He said one day we’d be cracking lobsters next to our wives and eating babka for dessert.

I won’t see or hear from him for years. We’d spoken nearly every day since 2019. He’s been in since 2020.

Before I left one friend said:

Thank you. Thank you for keeping me free. You know what you did. And it’s appreciated.

I said it was my pleasure. And it is.

I didn’t do what I did to buck authority.

I didn’t do it to be a gangster or want to be one.

I didn’t do it to burnish a rep.

I did it for love.

I’m not a hero. I’m a crook. Your parents are heroes. Doctors are heroes. People who house the homeless are heroes. Democracy activists and community organizers are heroes. Not me. .

What I did is the baseline of what a decent human being should do.

I didn’t emmiserate the next person so as to diminish my own fear or pain.

I could never do to another person what was done to me here.

No one else’s wife or mother or father or brother should have to feel like this.

No one else should be sitting in the bedroom in these scant predawn hours so wracked with grief and stress that sleep is a fantastic myth for the nth night running writing their farewell missive to the world, physically ill from sadness, loss, and trepidation.

I look at our wall art, our pillows, and most of all her and I know that I won’t be here for YEARS and I die inside. Each heartbeat is poison pain.

But I could never make anyone trade with me. So I will go. My fate is sealed.

I love the people I saved. Those whom I’m close with and those I never will speak to again. I can one day sleep again knowing that they are free no matter what happened to me.

And although all I want is to be with my wife again for just one more night I also understand I could never be with her at peace knowing my freedom was purchased by the incarceration of others.

Love of humanity. Love of good. Love of my family. Love of an ideal that should be followed even if others break it.

To inform was based in fear. It’s opposite was always based in love.

Remember me well,

I will miss the world fiercely,

But most of all I’ll miss my wife, she is my world.

When I ran away from that raid lurching to freedom I just wanted to see her one more time.

And now as I say goodbye to her and depart for captivity my wish is unaltered.

“Just let me see her one more time….just one more time….I have to make it….one more time.”

Till that time,

Daniel Muessig
FCI Morgantown
60 months
No cooperation

Dan has asked people to do just one thing, which is to sign this pledge: No Pardons, No Votes. Agitate your elected officials. Tell them to legalize cannabis (and all drugs) and pardon cannabis (and all drug) prisoners.

Note: I do this abolitionist/anti-prohibition work in my spare time, and it costs a lot in child care money. If you want to help me keep doing it, please consider sending a tip on PayPal, supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon registry. I’m a grad student and mother of two trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Other places to find me on the internet ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology:

Bread & Poppies Podcast

More on Dan:

The ad that made Dan famous:

Fear and Loathing in Atlanta: Racism and the War on Drugs

Content warning: racism, violence, forced miscarriage.

I was on my way to the airplane that would take me back home, to Canada. I boarded the train between the Atlanta airport’s two terminals, eyes bleary from sleep deprivation and last night’s makeup. A blind man and an airport employee helping him walked onto the train, led by his dog. Minutes passed in silence before he told a story, out of the blue, foggy eyes staring at nothing.

“One time I was leaving a store, and my dog, she led me into the wrong car,” he said to his helper. “It wasn’t my wife in the front seat. ‘I think you’re in the wrong car,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I think you’re right,’ I said.”

I shifted my backpack and smiled at the story.

“I’m just glad she didn’t have a .45 on her,” the blind man added.

“Yeah. That would have been messy,” the helper responded.

They said it seriously, but so casually. Like it was nothing. Normal.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down crying.

* * *

Just five days in the U.S. south, at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, changed how I view the work I’m doing. I’m a PhD student who studies the effects of drug prohibition on drug users and sellers. I know about gun violence, about racial oppression, about how the War on Drugs systematically targets the poor and people of colour. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve talked to people, I’ve done a Master’s degree’s worth of ethnographic research on the subject. I’ve lived in Mexico and seen the ugly effects of cartel power in person. There’s a reason I’m doing this work. But I’d never seen what I saw in Atlanta, so much in so few days.

Monstrous things that seemed to faze no one. Monochromatic homelessness, all black. I was catcalled constantly on the street, and then later told I was an idiot for walking alone at night at all – you can’t do that here. The transit security guard on the subway had a gun. I guess all of them do. I got a physical shiver when I saw it, a weight in my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a gun in person. I live in the kind of place where you can go months, even years without seeing a gun.

Photo 2017-10-11, 1 04 06 PM

A group of black men being bothered by cops for no reason I could discern, one of the first things I saw when I got into the city.

I heard story after story of people being arrested for drugs, years of their lives and their mental and physical health taken away from them, families destroyed. Racial tension was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Buzzing, insidious, toxic textures at the periphery of the senses. Fear seeped from the walls and coated every interaction. Hackles raised, human connection difficult without concerted effort. I made the effort and was rewarded with tiny moments of solidarity, bright sparks, smiles. Atlanta, like the US as a whole, is full of good, kind people, trapped in a cultural venn diagram of overlapping toxic systems that are slowly killing them and keep them turned against each other instead of against the systems themselves.

White supremacy is real, and it is everywhere. The geographic and economic segregation along racial lines was astounding. I sat eating a Big Mac in a McDonald’s at 11 pm on a Wednesday, the only white person among 30 black people. I then walked six blocks north and was hit by a wall of white bodies in confederate flag shirts—returning from a Garth Brooks concert, I later learned. I was very uncomfortable in the latter situation and felt fine in the former, but the sheer, naked, normalized segregation in both made me deeply uneasy.

I sent my partner a drunk text about how the food here didn’t feel digestible. That Big Mac haunted me. It was like eating ash and plastic, no nutrition at all. You don’t have to believe me, but I mean this honestly when I say that American fast food is worse than the fast food I’ve eaten in any other country. You can taste the difference in agricultural production and food standards. It hurt to think that it’s all that millions of people can afford. It’s barely food. They deserve so much better.

Photo 2017-10-14, 3 21 11 PM

These signs don’t exist where I live

I fended off catcalls as I walked home that night, a deep sense of shame and disgust at my skin colour setting in already, at how I was necessarily perceived to be one more white link in the chains that hold half that country hostage. I couldn’t hide my whiteness, so I shamefully found myself hoping people would at least notice my broken glasses and crappy old boots and think I’m poorer than I am. I’m not wealthy—I just barely identify as middle class—but I am not poor. Not like the homeless man to whom I gave my change instead of all the money in my pocket like I should have. My partner and I don’t make much money, but with free health care and the various other social and academic supports I have access to, I can afford to fly to conferences in other countries where I deal with the embarrassment of being a walking pile of privilege by hoping my taped-up glasses camouflage my relative wealth. I have to remind myself as I walk by that those people don’t have nothing because I have something: those people have nothing because a small handful of people have everything, and will not share until we make them. I channel that knowledge back into my work. Guilt is not productive. Action is.

jeff sessions is an absolute monster

So much blood on this man’s hands

The next day at the conference, I listened to a formerly incarcerated black woman on a panel tell her story. She was in federal prison for selling drugs, and she was pregnant when she was locked up. The water that came out of the taps in the prison was brown. She told them she couldn’t drink it, and they told her to go thirsty. One day, she began feeling pain in her belly. They took her to the infirmary—they didn’t have the right paperwork to get her to a hospital, and didn’t bother finding it. They shackled her, bleeding, to the bed, as she begged for help. She miscarried and lost her child. They threw her sheets, and the fetus, into the trash. Soon she was forced to return to her “job,” welding bunk beds for the men’s prison. Three beds high, three feet of vertical space per bed. The audience quietly cried as we listened. She sold things to people who wanted them, and the state robbed her of unborn child and gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hers was not the only story like this.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-12, 3 59 53 PMI was saved by the people at the conference, hundreds of tiny lights in a landscape of confused darkness. Activists, scholars, authors, health care workers, psychonauts, researchers, patients, libertarians, socialists. All of us bound together by the knowledge that drug prohibition is the modern day Jim Crow and the driving force behind death and destruction in the Americas. We clung to each other for sanity, sharing our successes and failures, our experiences, our self-care rituals. Every victory was tainted by the knowledge that while capitalism stands, its vultures will always find a way to profit and oppress. Marijuana is being legalized—great! But anyone with a felony record is barred from working in the legal market, meaning all the people of colour who were selling it before—shit. Companies who make ankle GPS trackers, video call systems for prisons, and opioid medications pour billions of dollars into lobbying to maintain the system the way it is, while Black and Latinx communities have their young men stolen from them and their women and children surveilled by the state through the welfare system.Photo 2017-10-12, 6 42 40 AM

“Poor activist communities are being destroyed by the prison system,” said one panelist. “If you want to disrupt social justice, put all the men in prison and all the women under welfare surveillance.”

One woman on a psychedelics panel was asked about her experiences. She said she could never fully relax and enjoy a journey, given the space she occupies in the world. “Not even psychedelics can bring me to a place where I can escape from the reality of being black in America.”

Later I sat and watched Falcons fans on the way to a football game, laughing and shouting like everything was fine, and wondered if I was going mad.

Photo 2017-10-13, 8 31 07 AMSometimes, among drug policy activists, it feels like we’re the band playing on the Titanic. Sometimes it feels like maybe we can make a difference, like we’ll win. Like there’s no way we can’t win when all the evidence, and all the empathy, is on our side. But it doesn’t matter either way. We have to try. There’s just no other option.

We have to do this work. Or who will?

* * *

Tiny squares of paper, an unlikely team: Leslie, from San Francisco, and Mark, a 21-year-old from New Mexico who’d never been outside his home state. All conferences have a culture of drinking—the culture at this one is a bit more unique.

Fear and loathing in Atlanta, hotel escalators like an Escher drawing. We managed to get to a club, where I danced like I could drown out my thoughts if I just moved hard enough. I listened to the lyrics of all my favourite hip-hop songs as if I’d never heard them before. Pain, power, poetry. They wrapped around my heart and pulled it down into the ground. The energy on the dance floor, the smiles, the movement—they crackled with intensity. I never wanted to leave.Photo 2017-10-14, 9 17 08 PM

Later, we stayed up til long past sunrise, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced that week. Legs stretched out on the hotel carpet, ears ringing. Talking to Leslie that night had been a moderating influence in the stark differences I kept seeing between our two countries. There were certain things she said didn’t exist in San Francisco either. But still, I began to feel terrible for how many times I pointed out how things like needing to carry mace with you is not normal in Canada, and should not be normal anywhere, let alone a country with this much wealth and resources. Transit officers with guns on the subway should not be normal. Having to ask whether the tap water is potable should not be normal. Fearing shootings in public should not be normal. Spatial segregation by race and class in a multiracial society should not be normal. Having to create GoFundMes to pay for surgery should not be normal. People fighting tooth and nail to keep professional sports team names that are straight-up racial slurs should not be normal.

Canada, like every country, has many serious problems that need immediate attention. I could write endless pages about what’s wrong with the capitalist, colonial state that I live in (and I often do.) Racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia—they all exist in my home too. But it’s not the same. It’s just not.

Sometimes, we just sat in silence, the weak morning sun peeking through the hotel curtains.

“I’ve been very angry and afraid of other people for a very long time,” realized Mark numbly.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-14, 11 26 02 PMI’m not naïve: I knew all of this existed. I’ve been obsessed with American politics, how similar our two cultures seem until you scratch beneath the surface, for years. It’s not possible to be a hip-hop fan from a young age, or study the War on Drugs for a living, and avoid the global vortex of injustice and power that centres on the US. But knowing about it, and coming face to face with the sheer day-to-day mundanity of it all, are two different things. I’ve been all over the West and Northeast, where the cracks in the cultural pavement are more subtle, but touching and seeing and smelling a Southern American city for the first time, while listening to first-hand stories from around the country, poured gasoline on my deep belief that to accept conditions like this as “just the way things are” is the most dangerous possible reaction. The normalization of structural violence, white supremacy and drug prohibition allows all of it to continue, at a scale that boggles the mind. I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want to accept it.

Judges who own bail companies and have shares in private prisons is not okay. A man facing five years in prison for picking mushrooms in a forest in Washington is an outrageous injustice. Thousands being held without even being charged, imprisoned for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Dozens of people shot every day by police. Women sexually violated by roadside cavity searches. All because human beings like getting high, and a group of wealthy, powerful people figured out how to turn that desire into capital by weaponizing racial oppression.

None of this is okay. Nobody deserves this kind of life.

I love Americans, I really do. They are incredible people, and so many of them have accomplished amazing things in the face of all this oppression. Watching American activists at work, fighting tirelessly under such difficult conditions, inspires me every day to work harder, work better, listen more closely, see more critically. But the country itself, the ideas that prop it up… How can we wake up the white American prohibition-supporting mainstream—which includes most liberals—to what is happening to people in their own country because of their complacency? I want to run around and shake people. Rip out the tentacles of media propaganda poisoning their minds, convincing vast swaths of the US that it’s their neighbours who are the problem, not corruption and inequality.Photo 2017-10-11, 12 54 33 PM

I guess it’s easier to be in denial, to feel like surely all those black people are wrong, overreacting with their protests and kneeling, than to confront the fact that your whole worldview is based on a mammoth lie. They’re like cult members—they just double down on their beliefs when they’re confronted with reality, because changing those fundamental beliefs, admitting the lie, would be too painful to bear. Maybe that’s how we need to start treating Trump supporters: like cult members who need deprogramming. They’ve bought into a certain narrative, that the US is fundamentally good, and to shatter that illusion would destroy a part of their very identity, their sense of self. Maybe we need to give them an out that allows them to shift that narrative towards something that provides the same positive identity, but acknowledges the truth: if you love your country, the most patriotic thing you can do is help to make it better for everyone in it.

* * *

It was Sunday morning. I’d slept for two disoriented hours. As I walked towards the subway train that would take me to the airport and the sweet sanctuary of home, I was torn between desperately wanting out, and feeling an urgent need to stay—there’s not enough time, I need to talk to more people. As if there could be an amount of time, or enough conversations, that would quiet the existential dread in my belly.

I passed a Muslim family outside the subway station. I wanted to run up to them, to every person of colour I saw and tell them I’m sorry for how hard it is to be them on this continent. I want them to know that I see them, I see what the world is doing to them, and it’s not okay, and I’m doing what I can to change things. That their experiences are real and valid. I don’t want to be one more person feeding into the twilight zone society that pretends this isn’t happening.

Photo 2017-10-12, 7 06 38 AMI’ve been texting with Mark regularly since I got back. We supported each other through our re-entry. “I was in a weird fugue state for a week when I got home,” he told me. “It felt like everything was going in slow motion.”

The airport alone was a surreal experience. I kept seeing innocuous but slightly bizarre things. I saw ads about “shopping for health care” and thought, those words don’t make sense together. I watched a man in the seat ahead and across from me sit and read all of the Wall Street Journal. He spent a particularly long amount of time on an article called “NFL weighs new anthem rules.” At one point, he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted them, and then put them back in his pocket.

I watched the guy next to me do a crossword puzzle, and it felt… I don’t know. Amazing. Ridiculous. Something. How can you do something so benign and simple and quaint and pleasant when the world around you is falling apart? How can you be so calm when 96 of your fellow citizens will die today from being shot with a gun? How are you not screaming with pitchforks at the front gates of every billionaire’s house?

I wanted to turn to the people across from me and ask, “Did you know that we’re living in the darkest timeline and everything we’re told about the way things work is a racist lie?”

But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to word that, so instead I asked them about football.
Photo 2017-10-11, 12 06 11 PM

I did talk with another Canadian headed to the same flight as me, and told her how I was feeling. “Atlanta is nothing,” she said. She’d gone to school in North Carolina, and left when she was done her degree because, she said, “it was too racist.”

* * *

When I started crying on the train after the blind man’s story, I couldn’t stop. I made my way to a fast food area with tables in the airport, sat down and sobbed. A woman—this woman—was playing the cello nearby, and I lost myself in the music, slow and sad. My body heaved as I wept. I was ignored by the other people at the tables. No one said a word to me.

By the time the music finished, I had too. I locked eyes with the cellist, whose name turned out to be Jenn, and she walked straight over to me as I stood up. She embraced me tightly, and I felt everything all at once.

We broke apart and I thanked her for her music. “I needed that,” I said.

“I could tell,” she answered. “Is there anything you want to share?”

We talked for a while, with another woman, and every second was both confusing and nourishing. Nothing I managed to verbalize about my feelings seemed to surprise them, and they were sympathetic. “It’s important to accept that not everyone is capable of feeling as deeply as you do,” one of them told me. It makes sense as a short term strategy, but it’s a pill I still refuse to swallow for the long-term. Everyone is capable. We’re just torn away from each other. We can rebuild empathy.

I had to go. They both hugged me goodbye as I wiped away tears, trying not to be embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I sniffed. “I’m okay.”

Jenn held my shoulders as she looked into my eyes. “It’s alright if you’re not okay, too.”

I felt the warmth in her words, and smiled. “I will be.”

* * *

Photo 2017-10-15, 1 49 54 PMOn the plane, I listened to Kendrick and let every word cut into me like wounds I never want to heal, wounds my soft, safe body will never actually have.

I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things

If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mothafucka up
And then I’d take two puffs
I’ve been hungry all my life
I’m high now
I’m high now

If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro