When Pot Prisoners Become Geopolitical Pawns
The global prohibition of cannabis affords the opportunity for imperial powers and authoritarian regimes to exploit those caught in the web of enforcement to advance their own political agendas. The recent case of Naama Issachar is a good example.
Naama Issachar, the young American-Israeli woman who was busted at the Moscow airport for cannabis possession, is now free after being detained since April 2019 and making international headlines for the extremity of her case.
Issachar’s release is certainly good news for her and her family, but this victory came at a cost. Over the past few months, it has become clear that Issachar’s case was wrapped up in a web of international intrigue and political rivalries, and there’s reason to believe the precedent set by Issachar’s release could encourage further arrests of travelers under the guise of cannabis possession.
In April 2019, Issachar was changing planes in Moscow as she headed back to Israel from a yoga retreat in India. A check of her bags turned up a few grams of pot, about a third of an ounce.
In October 2019, Russian courts sentenced her to an outrageous seven and a half years in the slammer — yet another example of a foreign national being caught by the harsh drug laws of an authoritarian regime, akin to notorious cases we’ve seen in recent years from Indonesia and Singapore.
But in Issachar’s case, the political intrigue was evident from the start. Her family was initially hoping she would be swapped for Aleksey Burkov, a Russian hacker being held by Israel. Burkov had been arrested by Israeli authorities on an Interpol warrant in 2015. He was awaiting extradition to the U.S., where he was wanted for various cyber-crimes, including stealing millions from credit card accounts.
Issachar, languishing in a Moscow jail cell, found herself at the center of a three-way diplomatic wrangle between Israel, Russia and the U.S. There was widespread speculation in the Israeli press that she may have even been arrested by the Russians precisely as a bargaining chip to win the release of Burkov.
The Issachar family’s hopes were dashed in November 2019, when Burkov was put on a plane to face charges in U.S. federal court in Virginia.
This seemingly left Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin pondering what else he could leverage Issachar’s freedom for — and, before long, he appeared to find it.
Naama Issachar as a Pawn in Russia-Poland Spat
Issachar’s role to play between Russia and Poland became evident with the ugly politicking around the World Holocaust Forum that opened in Jerusalem on Jan. 23, commemorating the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945.
In January, the Israeli press was rife with speculation that Russia would release Issachar if Israel took Putin’s side in his spat with Poland, sparked by the approaching 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Because Poland is a member of NATO and the European Union, Putin already sees the country as a rival geopolitical camp. But the tension between Russia and Poland took on a new intensity with the World Holocaust Forum, as both sides put out competing versions of the two countries’ roles in the war, and which government had capitulated more to Hitler.
The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, refused to attend the Holocaust commemoration after Putin was invited to speak and Duda wasn’t. Lithuania also announced it would boycott the commemoration in solidarity with Poland. The whole thing made a politicized farce out of what should have been a very solemn event.
Afterward, Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust museum that hosted the event, actually issued an apology for the video presentations at the commemoration, which glorified Russia’s wartime role while downplaying that of the other Allies. The statement said the videos “included inaccuracies and a partial portrayal of historical facts that created an unbalanced impression.”
And by the version of events popular in the Israeli press, at least, a cannabis bust was at the center of it all, used by Putin to assure he won pride of place at the Jerusalem confab, while his rival was sidelined.
There was even speculation that Putin would bring Issachar with him when he flew to Israel for the event. That probably would have been a little too blatant, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did actually fly to Russia to personally accompany her home on his official jet on Jan. 30 — hours after Putin signed her pardon.
And this also came just as the Israeli prime minister had been indicted on corruption charges, and the Palestinian Authority broke all ties with Israel over its embrace of Trump’s “peace” plan (which betrays all of the Palestinians’ longtime demands). Flying home with the cannabis convict provided Netanyahu with a good media bounce at a critical moment.
So Issachar was just as convenient to Netanyahu as she was to Putin. To make it all the more blatant, a Netanyahu aide publicly scolded Issachar’s mom after she failed to mention the prime minister in a Facebook post thanking those who campaigned for her daughter’s release.
Xi Jinping & China Also In on the Game
This was hardly the first time that Russia has used cannabis charges as a political tool. Oyub Titiev, the leading human rights activist in Russia’s southern republic of Chechnya, was arrested on cannabis charges in January 2018 and sentenced to four years in prison. Human Rights Watch called the charges against Titiev “blatantly fabricated.” He was paroled in June 2019, following an international campaign in his support.
The Russian cannabis crackdown goes right along with Putin’s whole reactionary agenda, which is also anti-gay and anti-woman. But it can additionally prove convenient on a tactical level.
Nor is Russia alone in seeking to leverage a foreign drug convict for political advantage.
In China, we’ve witnessed the very blatant case of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian who was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison for methamphetamine trafficking by a court in the northeast city of Dalian in December 2018. But the following month, he was ordered to stand retrial as prosecutors said that his sentencing had been too light. In a one-day retrial, he was given a death sentence. The retrial was widely seen as retribution for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese technology company Huawei. Meng had been arrested in Vancouver that same December at the request of U.S. authorities, who accuse her of helping the company evade sanctions against Iran.
Schellenberg is currently appealing his sentence, while Meng is facing extradition hearings in the Canadian courts. The government of Chinese leader Xi Jinping is threatening Canada with “grave consequences” if she is not released.
Will Narendra Modi Get a Quid Pro Quo, Too?
Meanwhile, a similar cannabis bust of an Israeli national just happened in India — with a 10-year prison term looming.
His name has not been released, but the 42-year-old Israeli tourist was caught with a bag full of 2.5 kilograms of bhang on Feb. 2, when police searched the bus he was on, headed toward the historic city of Varanasi. World Israel News used the headline: “Not another Naama.”
But it may well turn out to be another Naama. India’s authoritarian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like Putin, has been on very warm terms with Netanyahu, having secured some big arms deals with Israel since coming to power in 2014.
So, these good terms having been established, what further advantages will Modi now bargain for? Hell, it seemingly worked for Putin. It would be surprising if Modi is not at least weighing the question.
Yet another particularly cynical manifestation of the global prohibition regime: Cannabis convicts can be exploited as instruments of policy.
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