More than two dozen members of Congress are urging the State Department to escalate diplomatic efforts to secure the release of a U.S. citizen and medical marijuana patient who’s imprisoned in Russia over cannabis.
In a bipartisan letter led by Reps. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), the lawmakers said that it’s with “utmost urgency” that they request increased involvement from the Biden administration to bring Marc Fogel home after he was sentenced to 14 years in Russian prison for low-level marijuana possession.
“Throughout this process Mr. Fogel has cooperated with Russian authorities and shown proof of his medical conditions, yet, on June 16, 2022, he was still sentenced to an unconscionable, 14-years of hard labor,” the lawmakers wrote in the Monday letter, adding that he is a registered medical cannabis patient whose marijuana was “previously prescribed by Mr. Fogel’s doctor in the United States to treat his chronic pain.”
Today @GReschenthaler, @SenBobCasey & I led a bipartisan letter to @StateDept to classify #PA17 native Marc Fogel as wrongfully detained by Russia. It's time for the U.S. government to step up & secure Mr. Fogel's freedom. https://t.co/1S5JqsrrVt
— Conor Lamb (@RepConorLamb) October 31, 2022
The fact that the bipartisan lawmakers made a point to defend Fogel’s cannabis possession on the basis that it serves a legitimate medical purpose is notable, both because federal law currently contradicts that assessment and because of the diverse political ideologies of the letter’s signatories.
The coalition of nine senators and 16 House members wrote that the State Department should formally classify Fogel as a “wrongfully detained” person, a designation that the government has assigned to WNBA player Brittney Griner, whose recent appeal of a nine-year prison sentence over cannabis possession was rejected by a Russian court.
Fogel is reported to have been transferred to an undisclosed penal colony, and his family says they’ve lost contact with him, according to The Daily Mail.
“In light of the Moscow court’s August 25 decision to deny Mr. Fogel’s appeal and his ongoing transfer to a penal colony, we again request that you consider immediately classifying Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained and prioritize your work to bring him safely home to his family,” the letter says.
“The State Department has had ample time to reconsider the designation of Mr. Fogel, as over 120 and 50 days respectively have passed since his sentencing and appeal,” it continues. “We implore you to give this case the priority and gravity it deserves.”
The White House has said in July it’s 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.
Casey led a letter with other senators in August that similarly asked the State Department to classify the citizen, an American teacher, as “wrongfully detained.” That came a few weeks after other bipartisan members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation similarly pled with the State Department to escalate Fogel’s case, drawing parallels between his and Griner’s cannabis-related convictions.
This latest letter was signed by 25 members of Congress, including Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), as well as Reps. Dwight Evans (D-PA), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).
As State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained in May, 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.
Meanwhile, Griner remains an active point of focus for the Biden administration. The basketball player, whose lawyer provided the Russian court with evidence that she was a registered medical cannabis patient in Arizona, pleaded guilty to the possession charge and received a nine-year prison sentence.
The administration has faced consistent criticism over domestic marijuana policy in the context of Griner’s conviction and imprisonment, with advocates arguing that the U.S. would be better positioned to secure her release if it didn’t also criminalize people over cannabis.
Biden did issue a mass pardon this month to all Americans who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses, but advocates have pushed for further reform to ensure that nobody is in prison over cannabis. A collection of advocacy organizations staged a protest outside of the White House last month to raise attention to the issue.
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 in March 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.”
Read the lawmakers’ letter on increasing diplomatic efforts to secure Marc Fogel’s release below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.