Americans Locked Up Abroad

Domestically, the laws and policy surrounding cannabis are among America’s most confusing. Due to the legality of cannabis itself fluctuating greatly depending on where you’re currently located, the punishments for cannabis possession and use can range greatly. If you were caught with cannabis in Denver or Seattle, then there wouldn’t be any penalty whatsoever unless you were consuming in public and laws surrounding public consumption aren’t strictly enforced either.

However if you’re caught with cannabis in Birmingham, Alabama or a small and less progressive town in the South, then you’ll likely be given a ticket at least and incarceration at worst. The larger the amount of cannabis you’re caught with, the more severe the penalties could become and those penalties can range in severity depending on the views and policies of the local District Attorney’s office. Some counties have decriminalized for small amounts while remaining illegal on the state level and other city councils have passed similar measures to lessen the legal penalties of low level cannabis possession.

The laws surrounding cannabis possession in America are obviously very confusing and can be serious depending on where you’re caught with cannabis. Regardless of how strict America’s cannabis laws can occasionally be, if you were to travel internationally with cannabis then the legal penalties would almost always be even more harsh. Despite all of America’s faults, the country is one of the most progressive when it comes to cannabis legalization in comparison to nearly every other country. In total, the only countries that have legalized cannabis are Canada, Georgia, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, and Uruguay. Almost every other country in the world has laws in place that are so draconian in a way that America could have never thought of.

In the endlessly opulent United Arab Emirates, the minimum penalty for any cannabis possession whatsoever is four years in prison. If you’re found guilty of drug trafficking, then you could receive the death penalty. In fact, having any detectable levels of any drug in your bloodstream counts as drug possession. In Indonesia, you can be sentenced anywhere from four-twelve years for simple possession and Japan has similarly prosecuted laws. In Singapore, the death penalty is far more widely used for cannabis possession than any other country in the world. By law, Singapore is more strict about cannabis than even opium possession.

Despite these laws being widely available to cite before traveling to one of these countries, Americans are still detained every year for bringing cannabis products into a country with strictly enforced prohibition. WNBA player Brittney Griner was a recent example of an American citizen being detained and sentenced to nearly a decade in Russian prison before being released in exchange for a Russian war criminal. The basketball player is only one of several examples of Americans being locked up abroad due to cannabis that is medically prescribed in some situations.

To address this ongoing problem of Americans being incarcerated in other countries due to cannabis, a group of bipartisan lawmakers have introduced a Congressional piece of legislation that would force the State Department to explain to Congress why it has not officially designated a U.S. citizen incarcerated in Russia over medical marijuana possession and other Americans in foreign prisons as “wrongfully detained.”

Entitled the “Marc Fogel Act,” the legislation is named in honor of a teacher and former U.S. diplomat who is serving a 14-year sentence in Russia for possessing medical cannabis that was lawfully prescribed to him as a registered patient in Pennsylvania. In total, the amount of cannabis he was caught by Russian authorities with was barely over half an ounce, about $60-70 dollars by most average dispensary prices. Currently, Fogel is imprisoned in a Russian “penal colony” that resembles the gulags of the Soviet Union more than a correctional facility.

Because Fogel isn’t designated as a “wrongfully detained citizen”, the State Department hasn’t properly used diplomatic efforts to release the teacher in the same way that Griner was treated. Three Congress members from Fogel’s home state, Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), Chris Deluzio (D-PA), Mike Kelly (R-PA) and Brendan Boyle (D-PA), are now asking for transparency and openness on forcing the federal government to turn over documents and communications related to “wrongfully detained” cases like Fogel’s to determine why Fogel and other American citizens who’ve been incarcerated abroad haven’t been given the diplomatic designation that Griner did.

“The Department has failed to do either and refused to explain its inaction—effectively stonewalling my efforts to bring him home,” Reschenthaler explained in a press release on his website. “The Marc Fogel Act will provide transparency into the State Department’s wrongful detainment determination process and help ensure that Americans imprisoned overseas are not forgotten.”

“It is far past time for the U.S. State Department to designate Marc Fogel as wrongfully detained in Russia, and this bill will help bring daylight into the process that the Department uses for cases like his and other Americans imprisoned overseas,” said Congressman Deluzio. “Mr. Fogel and his loved ones in Pennsylvania’s 17th District deserve to know that their government hears them and is using every tool available to bring him home safely. We can strengthen that trust by designating detainment status accurately and by bringing more transparency into the process.”  According to the press release, Fogel meets six of the 11 criteria of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act to be considered as wrongfully detained.

“By introducing this legislation, we reaffirm our collective commitment to bring Marc Fogel home,” said Congressman Kelly. “For too long, we have pressed the Biden administration to declare Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained by the Russian government. This legislation would allow Congress to receive critical information not only about Mr. Fogel and why he has not received this declaration, but also for other Americans who may be imprisoned or held hostage abroad in the future. No American should be left behind and I pray Mr. Fogel will be reunited with his wonderful family as soon as possible.”

The press release even explicitly mentions Griner’s case by name and the similarities of the two cases and how they were both Americans who were medically prescribed cannabis. Yet, it also states how quickly Griner received designation compared to Fogel. “Griner was designated in less than three months after her arrest.”

Because the bill was just introduced and the government moves at the speed of a snail at best, it’ll be some time before the State Department is required to answer these very important questions.

Aaron Pelley

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