A U.S. citizen who’s imprisoned in Russia over low-level possession of medical marijuana should be reclassified by the State Department as a “wrongfully detained” person, a coalition of bipartisan senators said in a new letter.
The letter, led by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), argues that Marc Fogel is facing a “disproportionate 14-year sentence” over possessing less than an ounce of cannabis that he’s registered to use as a medical marijuana patient in Pennsylvania.
They told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Fogel meets several criteria to be considered a wrongfully detained person, which would entitle him to enhanced diplomatic resources to secure his release.
WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was similarly sentenced to nine years in Russian prison after she pled guilty to possessing cannabis vape cartridges that she was authorized to use in Arizona as a registered medical marijuana patient, is already designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department.
“Mr. Fogel’s recent 14-year sentence to a maximum-security penal colony for possession of less than an ounce of medical marijuana can only be understood as a political ploy by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime,” the senators wrote. “Mr. Fogel, a 61-year-old with severe medical conditions, has already been detained for a year. The United States cannot stand by as Mr. Fogel wastes away in a Russian hard labor camp.”
They said that as the State Department continues to “negotiate the release of Ms. Griner” over a similar, low-level marijuana offense, Fogel’s case “warrants the same degree of political attention and diplomatic intervention.”
“We strongly urge the State Department to shift its strategy given the realities of Marc Fogel’s situation and act immediately to designate him as ‘wrongfully detained.’ Such a designation will provide the warranted level of support to Marc Fogel’s family after a year of communication with Mr. Fogel only via mail and, most importantly, will require the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure Mr. Fogel’s freedom. We cannot allow Mr. Fogel to be used as a political pawn by Vladimir Putin.”
The letter was signed by nine senators, including a few that have previously taken hostile positions on cannabis reform.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) joined Casey on the letter.
Notably, they pointed out that that Fogel has “lived with chronic pain for decades” and, after multiple surgeries failed to relieve his pain, “a doctor recommended medical marijuana as an opioid alternative to treat his chronic pain” in 2021.
That tacit recognition of cannabis as an opioid alternative is especially interesting considering the wide range of domestic marijuana policy views represented by the signatories.
“Though Mr. Fogel did violate Russian law by bringing 17 grams of marijuana to the country, his sentence is grossly disproportionate to similar cases,” they wrote. “As Russian lawyers have pointed out, the most common sentence in similar cases is five years of probation.”
This also comes 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.
Last month, a senior White House official said on a press call that the administration has been “looking at” Fogel’s case “for a while now”—but no announcements have been made and he is not a part of the since-offered prisoner swap deal involving Griner and Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence over alleged espionage in Russia.
Beyond the discrepancy in how the Biden administration has treated the Griner and Fogel cases, advocates have taken issue with the fact that the president is spending so much political capital to help one American who is detained for cannabis in Russia while refusing to take meaningful action to fulfill campaign promises to decriminalize marijuana domestically and free people who are incarcerated for it in U.S. prisons.
Biden did make his first public comment on marijuana policy since taking office last month, reiterating that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over the plant.
But even with the executive authority to grant mass pardons to people with federal cannabis convictions, the administration is still in the process of exploring its clemency options, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre recently said.
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.”