A senior White House official confirmed the Biden administration is looking to secure the release of another US citizen currently held in Russia for an alleged cannabis-related offense.
The statement follows extensive media coverage of WNBA athlete Brittney Griner’s arrest in Russia for cannabis oil possession, for which she has pleaded guilty, but concerns the lesser known case of American teacher Mark Fogel.
Fogel was detained by Russian authorities in August 2021 after 17 grams of cannabis was allegedly found in his luggage. He was then sentenced to 14 years in prison for the offense, which the court described as “large-scale” smuggling.
Both Fogel and Griner are medical marijuana patients in the US, but that carries no sway under Russia’s draconian drug laws. However, while Griner has been classified as “wrongfully detained” by the State Department, meaning her case involves increased diplomatic engagement to secure her release, Foley does not yet have this designation.
Foley used to be employed at the US Embassy in Moscow, but this was before his conviction for marijuana possession so he could not claim diplomatic immunity.
The White House official’s comment on Foley’s case came at a press conference concerning Biden’s executive order on bringing American hostages and prisoners held wrongfully overseas back to the US. One reporter asked why Foley and Griner’s cases were being treated differently by the State Department despite the similarities.
The unnamed official initially said they couldn’t comment on an ongoing case and recommended the reporter look into the Levinson Act, which sets out how “wrongful detention” classifications are made. This legislation includes an 11-point criteria to assess wrongful detention, including whether due process has been followed and whether it is believed the person is being held based on their US nationality.
The official confirmed, however, that the administration is continuing to investigate Foley’s situation
“On the Fogel case, I probably shouldn’t talk about any cases that are ongoing,” the official said. “We’ve been looking at that for a while now. I spent a few hours on the Fogel case just last week trying to get more information on it. So it’s ongoing and active; we’re looking at it. But I’d rather not go into any more details on specific cases.”
Griner was recently sentenced to nine years for possession of less than one gram of cannabis oil, and while US officials claim she is being used as leverage by Russian authorities amid the Ukraine invasion, Kremlin officials have responded by disputing her designation as wrongfully detained. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused US officials of hypocrisy, citing federal criminalization of cannabis in America. On this point, marijuana reform advocates in the US agree that Griner’s case would be stronger were the plant not federally prohibited.
Like the USA, Russia has historically taken a hardline stance against marijuana at the international level. While the US has somewhat softened its position in recent years, however, Russia remains very much in favor of prohibition. At the end of 2020, the US voted to remove cannabis from the most restrictive global drug category at a UN vote, but Russia was one of the country’s to vote against the motion.