Bipartisan congressional lawmakers in both chambers have filed resolutions condemning Russia for incarcerating a U.S. citizen over possession of medical marijuana that he obtained as a registered patient in Pennsylvania and used an an opioid alternative to treat pain. The legislation also calls on President Joe Biden’s federal government to step up efforts to secure his release.
The resolution says the 14-year sentence that Marc Fogel received after being convicted of “drug smuggling” over possession of a half-ounce of cannabis is politically motivated and disproportionate, especially when taking into account the fact that he was using marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with a doctor’s recommendation.
Reps. Chris Deluzio (D-PA) and Guy Reschenthaler, (R-PA), along with 13 other cosponsors, are leading the House version, while the Senate concurrent resolution is being led by Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Fetterman (D-PA) and Jon Tester (D-MT).
“Marc Fogel has undergone three back surgeries, a spinal fusion, a hip replacement, and two knee surgeries to correct various injuries and health issues, which have left him with chronic back pain and a permanent limp,” the measure says. And he “did not wish to use opioids to manage his pain and was instead prescribed medical marijuana for pain management in a manner consistent with the State law of Pennsylvania.”
Fogel “stated he intended that marijuana solely for personal consumption, and the Government of the Russian Federation has presented no evidence to the contrary,” yet he received a 14-year sentence following a “politicized show trial.”
The resolution also pointed out that a Russian lawyer informed Fogel’s family that the typical sentence for the low-level cannabis possession offense in the country is five years of probation, and that Russia has levied lesser sentences on people charged with possession of 1,500 grams of “various narcotics.”
“Marc Fogel’s sentence is vastly disproportionate to the severity of his nonviolent crime, wildly dissimilar to the typical punishments for comparable offenses in Russia, and clearly motivated by ongoing political tensions between Russia and the United States,” it says.
The measure calls on Russia to immediately release Fogel and for the White House and State Department to “press for his immediate release in all interactions with the Government of the Russian Federation.”
It further “urges the Government of the Russian Federation to desist from issuing outlandishly disproportionate criminal sentences to nonviolent United States citizens” and “condemns the Government of the Russian Federation’s continued use of detentions and prosecutions of citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States for political purposes.”
The resolution is being introduced shortly after family of Fogel visited the White House to meet with high-level officials and also raise attention to his case with members of Congress.
“We cannot sit by while Putin’s Russia plays political games with the lives of Americans like my Western Pennsylvania constituent Marc Fogel,” Deluzio said in a press release on Wednesday. “Marc faces unjust and disproportionate charges for possession of his legally prescribed medical marijuana.”
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) said that the legislation “reaffirms our collective commitment to bring Marc Fogel home. For too long, we have pressed the Biden administration to declare Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained by the Russian government.”
Deluzio, Kelly and Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) and Brendan Boyle (D-PA) also filed a bill last month that would require the State Department to explain to Congress why it has not designated Fogel, as well as other Americans detained abroad, as “wrongfully detained.”
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Lawmakers have worked several angles to get the State Department to classify Fogel, an international teacher who worked with U.S. diplomats, as a wrongfully detained individual, a designation that escalates diplomatic efforts to secure his release.
They’ve pointed out that the federal government did make that designation for WNBA player Brittney Griner, who also served time in a Russian prison over possession of cannabis oil that she also lawfully obtained as a medical marijuana patient in Arizona before being released as part of a prisoner swap that the Biden administration negotiated.
Daines and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, imploring the administration to “immediately” escalate diplomatic efforts to secure Fogel’s return.
Late last year, more than two dozen members of Congress called on the State Department to step up diplomatic efforts to secure the release of Fogel, calling his incarceration over marijuana that he used to treat chronic pain “unconscionable.”
The White House said last year it was actively investigating Fogel’s case, and lawmakers have been keeping the pressure on to ensure it’s doing all that it can to secure his release.
When asked about the administration’s work to secure the release of other Americans like Fogel who are imprisoned abroad, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre deferred to the State Department, arguing that “every case is different” and saying she didn’t want to get ahead of any ongoing diplomatic efforts.
Casey also led a letter with other senators last year that similarly asked the State Department to classify the citizen, an American teacher, as “wrongfully detained.” That came shortly after other bipartisan members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation similarly pleaded with the State Department to escalate Fogel’s case, drawing parallels between his and Griner’s cannabis-related convictions.
As State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained last year, officials take into account 11-point criteria when determining whether a given case amounts to a wrongful detention. For example, if the U.S. has reason to believe that due process is being impaired, that the person was arrested solely because they are a U.S. national or that they are innocent of the stated charges, that would warrant a wrongful detention designation.
Russia, for its part, has taken a particularly strong stance against reforming cannabis policy at the international level through the United Nations. And it condemned Canada for legalizing marijuana nationwide.
The deputy of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last year that legalization efforts in the U.S. and Canada are matters “of serious concern for us,” according to a social media post from the office’s official account. “It is worrisome that several Member States of the [European Union] are considering violating their drug control obligations.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.