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Senators Approve Resolution Condemning Russian Imprisonment Of American Who Used Medical Marijuana As Opioid Alternative



A Senate committee has approved a resolution calling for the release of a U.S. citizen incarcerated over marijuana in Russia, emphasizing that he was a lawful medical cannabis patient in Pennsylvania using state-legal products as an opioid alternative.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the legislation sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) during an executive session on Tuesday. The concurrent resolution also calls on President Joe Biden’s federal government to step up efforts to secure his release.

The measure 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.

“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,” the resolution reads, yet he received a 14-year sentence following a “politicized show trial.”

The resolution also points 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 was introduced last July 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. While the Senate version next heads to the Senate floor, a House companion version has not yet advanced in that chamber.

Casey, the Senate sponsor, said the resolution “sends a clear, bipartisan message to Vladimir Putin and dictators like him that the United States won’t stand for the imprisonment of Americans like Marc Fogel.”

“Marc is a loving father and schoolteacher who’s devoted his life to educating students around the world. The United States must do everything possible to bring Marc home and show our enemies that Americans aren’t to be used in their political games,” he said.

Meanwhile, a separate coalition of more than 20 U.S. senators filed a different resolution this month condemning the arrests of American citizens in Russia, including  Fogel.

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Lawmakers have made repeated pleas for the State Department to escalate Fogel’s case, including by formally designating him as wrongfully detained. The resolution also urges that designation.

They’ve pointed out that his situation is comparable 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 before being released as part of a prisoner swap that the Biden administration negotiated.

Signatories also filed a bill last June 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.”

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul also sent a letter to the secretary of state, imploring the administration to “immediately” escalate diplomatic efforts to secure Fogel’s return.

In 2022, 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 that 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 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 again 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, 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.

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