Bipartisan lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require the State Department to explain to Congress why it has not designated a U.S. citizen incarcerated in Russia over medical marijuana possession, as well as other Americans detained abroad, as “wrongfully detained.”
The legislation is titled the “Marc Fogel Act,” named after a teacher and former U.S. diplomat who is serving a 14-year sentence in Russia for possessing medical cannabis that he lawfully obtained as a registered patient in Pennsylvania.
Lawmakers have worked several angles to get the State Department to classify him as a wrongfully detained individual, a designation that escalates diplomatic efforts to secure his release.
Now Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), Chris Deluzio (D-PA), Mike Kelly (R-PA) and Brendan Boyle (D-PA) are seeking transparency in the process to force the federal government to provide documents and communications related to cases like Fogel’s to understand exactly why he and others who’ve been incarcerated abroad haven’t received the upgraded diplomatic designation.
“The Department has failed to do either and refused to explain its inaction—effectively stonewalling my efforts to bring him home,” Reschenthaler said in a press release on Tuesday. “The Marc Fogel Act will provide transparency into the State Department’s wrongful detainment determination process and help ensure that Americans imprisoned overseas are not forgotten.”
Read more about the Marc Fogel Act: https://t.co/xzknETyN4V
— Guy Reschenthaler (@GReschenthaler) June 27, 2023
Deluzio said that it’s “far past time for the U.S. State Department to designate Marc Fogel as wrongfully detained in Russia, and this bill will help bring daylight into the process that the Department uses for cases like his and other Americans imprisoned overseas.”
“Mr. Fogel and his loved ones in Pennsylvania’s 17th District deserve to know that their government hears them and is using every tool available to bring him home safely,” he said. “We can strengthen that trust by designating detainment status accurately and by bringing more transparency into the process.”
The bill itself doesn’t explicitly mention marijuana, but the press release notes that Fogel “is serving a 14-year hard-labor sentence for possession of medical marijuana used to treat his severe back injury, a charge very similar to that of 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.
Western Pennsylvanian Marc Fogel has been detained in Russia for nearly 2 yrs for a small amount of medical marijuana.
— Congressman Chris Deluzio (@RepDeluzio) June 27, 2023
Unlike Fogel, Griner was designated by the State Department as wrongfully detained before being released as part of a prisoner swap that the Biden administration negotiated.
“Under federal law, Fogel meets at least six of the eleven established criteria to be designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department. He has yet to be classified as wrongfully detained,” the press release says. “Griner was designated in less than three months after her arrest.”
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Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this 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.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) 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.