WNBA player Brittney Griner is returning to the U.S. after the government secured her release from Russian detention after serving 10 months of a nine-year sentence for low-level cannabis possession.
And while there’s widespread relief over the development, already there are calls from advocates and lawmakers to follow up with domestic reform and increased diplomatic efforts to release other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad, including one teacher who is similarly imprisoned in Russia over medical marijuana.
The White House was asked about that case at a press briefing on Thursday, and 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.
Griner’s drug charge and extreme sentence brought marijuana policy and criminalization to the forefront of an international conversation. As the government worked diplomatic angles to get her released, attorneys provided the Russian court with evidence that Griner was a registered medical marijuana patient in Arizona, to no avail.
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
It wasn’t clear what was going to happen with Griner, whom the U.S. designated as a wrongful detained even after she admitted to accidentally packing cannabis vape cartridges that were found on her at an airport outside of Moscow. Advocates had argued that the U.S. would have been better positioned to advocate for her release if it didn’t also have federal laws on the books similarly criminalizing people over marijuana.
In the end, the U.S. managed to get Griner released and on her way to the U.S. by negotiating a prisoner swap, returning convicted arms trafficker Vikor Bout to Russia.
“It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release,” President Joe Biden said on Thursday. “Reuniting these Americans with their loved ones remains a priority—a priority for my administration and every person in my administration involved in this. And we’re going to continue to work to bring home every American who continues to endure such an injustice.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement on Thursday that he’s “of course very relieved that Brittney Griner was released and on the way home to her family,” and he hopes “that this can be the start of another incremental step towards more rational cannabis policy.”
“Thousands of athletes self-medicate with medical cannabis, and they should be able to do so without discriminatory interference from authorities, either government or sports bureaucracy,” he said. “We have not yet harnessed the full therapeutic potential of cannabis as a way to manage pain, anxiety, depression, and more. My Medical Marijuana Research bill, which President Biden signed into law just last week, will make it easier for scientists to obtain approval to study the impacts and benefits of cannabis.”
“I hope this will begin to reform the federal government’s misguided and irrational approach to cannabis. Support for patients and those, like Brittney Griner, caught in the failed war on drugs should be at the core of our next steps on cannabis,” Blumenauer said.
Other congressional lawmakers have taken a more critical attitude toward the government’s handling of Griner in contrast with other U.S. citizens who remain incarcerated in Russia. That includes Marc Fogel, who formerly worked at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and was sentenced to 14 years in Russian prison for possession of 17 grams of cannabis, which he said he used for medical purposes to treat back pain.
The Biden administration has not given Fogel the “wrongfully detained” status that Griner got.
“I am pleased to hear the news that Brittney Griner was released this morning and is returning to the United States,” Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) said on Thursday. “However, I remain deeply disappointed that the Biden administration was not able to secure the release of Marc Fogel.”
“I urge the administration to include Mr. Fogel in any future negotiations, and I am once again calling on the State Department to further designate Mr. Fogel as ‘wrongfully detained,'” the congressman said. “He is serving 14 years for possessing 17 grams—or just over half an ounce—of medical marijuana. That is egregious, even under Russia’s current laws.”
“This is a great day for the Griner family. I hope to see the Fogel family have the same reunion soon,” he said. “To the Fogel family: we are not giving up on bringing Marc home.”
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) said that the Biden administration’s efforts to free Griner without securing the release of Fogel or Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence over alleged espionage in Russia, show they are “afterthoughts to this administration, who care more about celebrity admiration and wokeness than returning all Americans safely to their families.”
It is clear Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel are afterthoughts to this administration, who care more about celebrity admiration and wokeness than returning all Americans safely to their families.
— Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (@GReschenthaler) December 8, 2022
“I will continue to relentlessly advocate for Pittsburgh native Marc Fogel’s release and for the State Department to classify him as wrongfully detained, something they have failed to do since his detainment in August 2021,” he wrote.
Biden and Secretary Blinken better preserve their documents because the new House Republican majority is going to demand answers on this latest disaster.
— Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (@GReschenthaler) December 8, 2022
Kelly, Reschenthaler and Rep. Glenn Thompason filed a resolution last month that seeks to put additional pressure on the Biden administration to escalate efforts to free Fogel by formally requesting all White House documents related to the State Department’s review of his case.
Also last month, more than two dozen members of Congress sent a letter to the State Department, urging them to increase those diplomatic efforts to secure Fogel’s release.
At a White House briefing on Thursday, the press secretary was pressed on what makes Fogel’s case seemed to be treated differently than Griner’s, despite the fact that he’s also serving time in Russia over a marijuana possession while being a registered medical cannabis patient in Pennsylvania.
“We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation,” Jean-Pierre said. “Any specifics on Mark Fogel or any others—I would refer you to the State Department for additional information on those specific cases there. Every case is different.”
The Republican National Committee’s research arm picked up on the response and shared the clip.
"Have there been any similar efforts regarding American Marc Fogel, who is also in Russia, also arrested on marijuana charges. How is his case different?"
Karine Jean-Pierre: "Every case is different" pic.twitter.com/MkGhgRqIcj
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) December 8, 2022
Asked whether the U.S. considers Fogel a wrongful detention case, the press secretary again said that she “can’t speak to any individual specific case at this time.”
Advocates have cheered Griner’s release as a long-overdue piece of welcome news, but they’ve also wasted no time pushing the administration to take further steps to ensure that laws in the U.S. reflect the sentiment that people shouldn’t be in prison over marijuana.
“We are grateful for the long-overdue release of Brittney Griner after months of detention amid an increasingly uncertain and dangerous political environment. MPP vows to continue our fight to legalize cannabis and free those unfairly imprisoned for possession right here in the United States,” Toi Hutchinson, CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “We will not stop fighting until both the plant and the people are freed.”
Morgan Fox, political director of NORML, said that the group is “overjoyed that Griner is coming home, and commend the administration for reiterating its position that no American belongs in jail for simple cannabis possession no matter where they are and prioritizing her release.”
“We urge the administration to redouble its efforts to bring Marc Fogel and other Americans imprisoned abroad for cannabis home as soon as possible, and to keep working to free cannabis prisoners stateside,” he said. “We also urge lawmakers nationwide to reflect on the fact that there are still places in this country where Griner could have received a similar sentence for the same action. (*cough* TEXAS *cough*).”
— NORML (@NORML) December 8, 2022
U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC) CEO Khadijah Tribble said that “President Biden was correct when he said that no one should be jailed for using cannabis.”
“USCC calls on the Senate to follow the will of the American people and enact cannabis reform measures that would clear barriers to entry for Black and Brown cannabis entrepreneurs and bring some relief to all the other Americans who, like Griner, were unjustly harmed by cannabis prohibition,” Tribble said. “Let’s celebrate today’s announcement with a call to action to end the ongoing punishment for cannabis possession in our own country.”
As discussed at the White House briefing, a key difference between the Forgel and Griner cases is that the latter was formally characterized as a wrongful detention by the U.S. government, whereas Fogel’s case has not been given that designation.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained in May that 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.
The White House has previously said it’s actively investigating Fogel’s case as well. And in August, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers put pressure on the Biden administration to work to free Fogel.
Another coalition of bipartisan senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August, urging attention to the case and arguing that he should be classified as wrongfully detained.
Biden did issue a mass pardon in October 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 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.”
Image element courtesy of Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia.