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Russia sentences American teacher Marc Fogel to 14 years in prison for "large-scale" cannabis smuggling

A screengrab from video released by Russia's Interior Ministry shows U.S. national Marc Fogel sitting in a security screening area at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, where he was detained in August 2021 after marijuana was allegedly found in his luggage. Russian Interior Ministry/Handout

Moscow — A Moscow court has sentenced a U.S. teacher to 14 years in prison for "large-scale" cannabis smuggling, the latest American to be caught up in Russia's legal system. Russia and the United States regularly clash over the detention of each other's citizens and sometimes exchange them in scenes reminiscent of the Cold War.

The sentencing of Marc Fogel comes as relations between Moscow and the West, particularly Washington, are tense over Moscow's war in Ukraine.

"The American citizen Fogel has been found guilty," the Khimki court said in a statement late Thursday. It said Fogel committed "large-scale drugs smuggling" by crossing the Russian border, as well as "large-scale illegal storage of drugs without a commercial purpose."

Russian authorities said in January that Fogel had been arrested by customs officers after arriving from New York with his wife at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.

"During customs checks, the marijuana and hash oil were found in his luggage," officials said, adding that the drugs were hidden in contact lens cases and e-cigarette cartridges. The incident took place in August 2021.

Fogel, who worked as a teacher in the Anglo-American School of Moscow, insisted the marijuana was for medical purposes and that it was prescribed in the United States after a spinal operation. Russia has not made the use of cannabis legal for medicinal purposes.

Russian officials say Fogel was employed in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and benefitted from diplomatic immunity until May 2021.

"He insists that it was medical marijuana and claims that a doctor prescribed it to him in the United States, which is allegedly confirmed by an entry in the medical record," Alexander Khurudzhi, a member of a Moscow human rights committee who was among a group of lawyers that visited Fogel in December, told Russia's Interfax news agency at the time. 

"He claims he was unaware of Russia's ban on medical marijuana," Khurudhzi said.

Fogel told the lawyers in December that he brought around 17 grams, or just over half an ounce, of marijuana with him to Russia.

The Interior Ministry has not specified the amount that Fogel is accused of carrying, but Russian law defines a "large amount" of marijuana to be 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) or more. Anything between 6-100 grams is classified as a "significant amount," the possession of which generally carries a much shorter jail sentence and, in some cases, the punishment is reduced to a fine.

The U.S. Embassy did not elaborate on Fogel's case, or on his diplomatic status, which he may have held as a member of staff at the school, which was previously run by the embassy.

Several Americans are currently detained in Russian prisons, and vice versa.

Brother of imprisoned American Paul Whelan wants to get him out of Russia before parents die 07:25

In April, the United States exchanged former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison for violence, for a Russian pilot who had been in a U.S. jail since 2010.

And American basketball star Brittney Griner is currently in pre-trial detention in Russia for drugs smuggling. Griner's detention came days before Russia defied U.S. warnings and sent troops into Ukraine in late February.

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