Three GOP congressional lawmakers filed a resolution on Thursday that seeks to put additional pressure on the Biden administration to escalate efforts to free a U.S. citizen and registered Pennsylvania medical cannabis patient who’s imprisoned in Russia over marijuana possession.
The resolution of inquiry—sponsored by Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Mike Kelly (R-PA)—would formally request all White House documents related to the State Department’s review of Marc Fogel’s case to understand why he hasn’t been designated as a “wrongfully detained” person, as WNBA player Brittney Griner has been for a similar conviction in Russia.
Members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation have been especially active advocates for increased White House attention to Fogel’s case. The American teacher was sentenced to 14 years in Russian prison for low-level marijuana possession.
Last week, more than two dozen bipartisan members of Congress, including Reschenthaler, Thompson and Kelly, urged the State Department to escalate diplomatic efforts to secure the release of Fogel in a separate letter.
Now the three Republican lawmakers are seeking the passage of a resolution to specifically obtain from the administration”copies of all documents, memoranda, advisory legal opinions, notes from meetings, audio recordings (including telephone records), correspondence (including electronic mail records), and other communications” that “refer to information relating to the review conducted by the Department of State of the statutory criteria for Marc Fogel to be designated as ‘wrongfully detained.’”
The State Department has failed to classify Marc Fogel as “wrongfully detained” in Russia and refused to explain its inaction.
The Biden Administration is stonewalling Congress.
I introduced a resolution of inquiry to get answers. pic.twitter.com/Hc34QCaWKM
— Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (@GReschenthaler) November 4, 2022
Reschenthaler said in a press release that his experience as a former district and Navy judge means that he knows “when I’m being stonewalled.”
“It is indisputable Marc Fogel meets the definition of wrongfully detained under the Levinson criteria,” he said. “Yet as his health rapidly deteriorates ahead of his transfer to a hard-labor penal colony, the Biden Administration is still making excuses rather than following the letter of the law. They owe Congress an explanation for their inaction.”
What’s been notable about the advocacy for Fogel’s release is how many lawmakers from across the political spectrum have specifically recognized his status as a registered medical cannabis patient in Pennsylvania.
Advocates have also acknowledged the medical cannabis patient status of Griner, who is classified as a wrongfully detained person and whose recent appeal of a nine-year prison sentence over cannabis possession was rejected by a Russian court.
“As the Russian government continues its hostilities toward Americans, we must have complete access to the full report regarding Mr. Fogel’s detainment, trial, and sentencing,” Thompson said. “It is imperative the State Department exhausts all efforts to return him to his family here in the United States.”
Fogel is reported to have been transferred to an undisclosed penal colony, and his family says they’ve lost contact with him, according to The Daily Mail.
The White House has said in July it’s 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.
“In addition to his grossly disproportionate 14-year sentence to a Russian maximum-security penal colony, Marc’s case certainly meets several of the other established criteria to be considered ‘wrongfully detained,’” Kelly said. “With this resolution, it is my hope that the State Department will elevate this case, properly designate Marc as ‘wrongfully detained,’ and work to secure his timely release for Marc, his Western Pennsylvania family, and supporters across the globe.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) led a letter with other senators in August that similarly asked the State Department to classify the citizen, an American teacher, as “wrongfully detained.” That came a few weeks 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 in May, 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.
Meanwhile, Griner remains an active point of focus for the Biden administration. The basketball player, whose lawyer provided the Russian court with evidence that she was a registered medical cannabis patient in Arizona, pleaded guilty to the possession charge and received a nine-year prison sentence.
The administration has faced consistent criticism over domestic marijuana policy in the context of Griner’s conviction and imprisonment, with advocates arguing that the U.S. would be better positioned to secure her release if it didn’t also criminalize people over cannabis.
Biden did issue a mass pardon last month 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 last month 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.”
Read the lawmakers’ proposed resolution for information about Fogel’s case below: