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Senators Condemn Russia Over American Citizen’s ‘Ludicrous’ Incarceration For Medical Marijuana

A coalition of more than 20 U.S. senators has filed a resolution condemning the arrests of American citizens in Russia, including a Pennsylvania medical cannabis patient, Marc Fogel, who is serving a a 14-year sentence over simple possession of marijuana.



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Sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), the measure was filed to mark the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich over unfounded allegations of espionage.


“By introducing this resolution, we’re yet again bringing to light the cruelty of the Russian government,” Durbin, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a press release on Tuesday. “As fellow Americans, we demand the release of all American citizens who face arbitrary arrests by the Russian government.”

 

The senator said in a floor speech on Thursday that Fogel’s arrest over possession of medical cannabis he was prescribed in a legal state resulted in a “ludicrous 14-year sentence in Russian labor camps.”


Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who is among the prime cosponsors, said Fogel was “detained for carrying a small amount of medical marijuana, which was prescribed by his doctor.”


“But Marc has now spent over a year of a fourteen-year sentence in a Russian prison because of a bogus ‘large-scale drug trafficking’ conviction. A fourteen-year sentence is absurd–even by Russian standards,” he said. “The bottom line is that Marc’s punishment simply does not match the crime. We must bring Marc, and all other unjustly detained Americans, home.”


The whereas section of the resolution notes that, in 2021, “the Government of the Russian Federation arrested United States citizen and international schoolteacher Marc Fogel for possession of medical marijuana prescribed by his physician, then sentenced him on June 16, 2022, to an excessive 14-year sentence in a Russian labor camp.”


The measure states that Congress “condemns the arbitrary arrest and continued detention of United States citizens Evan Gershkovich, Paul Whelan, Alsu Kurmasheva, Marc Fogel, and Ksenia Khavana, and United States permanent resident Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Government of the Russian Federation.”


Other cosponsors of the resolution include: Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Angus King (I-ME), Patty Murray (D-WA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Peter Welch (D-VT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).


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.


Last July, bicameral legislators also filed a pair of congressional resolutions that condemn Russia for incarcerating Fogel over simple possession of medical cannabis.


The resolutions were introduced 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.

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 that month, 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 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 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 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.

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