A U.S. senator and a former ambassador are imploring the Biden administration to “immediately” escalate diplomatic efforts to secure the return of an American imprisoned in Russia over possession of medical cannabis that he lawfully obtained in Pennsylvania.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, requesting that the government formally designate Marc Fogel as wrongfully detained and “prioritize securing his release.”
“He is serving an unjust and unwarranted 14-year sentence of hard labor in a Russian prison for drug trafficking due to possession of medically prescribed medical marijuana,” the letter says. “This severe sentence is of particular concern as he is facing deteriorating health conditions that could potentially result in this judgment serving as a life sentence.”
The officials pointed out that Fogel’s charges are “similar to those of Brittney Griner,” an American basketball player who was imprisoned in Russia over possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil and designated by the State Department as wrongfully detained before being released as part of a prisoner swap that the Biden administration negotiated.
The letter says “similar actions by the State Department are warranted and every effort to secure [Fogel’s] release should be made, including designating him as wrongfully detained.”
Late last year, more than two dozen members of Congress called on the State Department to escalate 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 pled 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.