15 Bipartisan Lawmakers Tell Biden Admin To Include American Jailed In Russia For Medical Marijuana In Any Prisoner Swap

15 Bipartisan Lawmakers Tell Biden Admin To Include American Jailed In Russia For Medical Marijuana In Any Prisoner Swap

More than a dozen bipartisan House and Senate lawmakers are pushing the Biden administration to “redouble” its efforts to secure the release of an American imprisoned in Russia over medical marijuana, saying he “must” be included in any future prisoner swaps.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, 15 members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation said that Marc Fogel is serving an “unconscionable 14-year sentence” in Russia after being convicted for possessing a “limited amount of medical marijuana” that he used to treat chronic pain as a registered patient in Pennsylvania.

“Throughout this process, Mr. Fogel has cooperated with Russian authorities and shown proof of his medical conditions,” the letter, led by Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and John Fetterman (D-PA), along with, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), says.

“Since his arrest, numerous members of the House and Senate from both sides of the aisle have urged the State Department to take further action, including classifying Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, this designation process has stalled while Mr. Fogel’s health has deteriorated. His physical safety continues to remain at risk.”

The letter comes weeks after reports that Russia rejected a proposed prisoner swap deal believed to involve two other Americans, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and journalist Evan Gershkovich, who are detained in Russia over allegations of espionage. The lawmakers’ letter says that Fogel, in addition to those two men, should be included in the potential agreement.

“During this holiday season, we join our constituents urging the Biden Administration to redouble its efforts to secure Mr. Fogel’s release from Russian custody so that Mr. Fogel may return home to his wife, 94-year-old mother, and the rest of his family,” the letter says. “Therefore, we respectfully request that Mr. Fogel be included in any discussion involving other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia.”

The letter was also signed by Reps. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Chris Deluzio (D-PA), Dan Meuser (R-PA), Dwight Evans (D-PA), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Brendan Boyle (D-PA), Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Susan Wild (D-PA), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) and Summer Lee (D-PA).

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

In 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.

Deluzio, Kelly, Reschenthaler and Boyle also filed a bill in 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 in June, 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.

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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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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