Now that WNBA star Brittney Griner has been handed her sentence by the Russian legal system for allegedly bringing THC oil into the country, cannabis advocates in the U.S. are calling for immediate reform at home.
Earlier this month, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison after she pleaded guilty to transporting THC oil cartridges in her luggage. Leaders in the U.S., including President Joe Biden, have reportedly been fighting for her release after the State Department declared that she was being “wrongfully detained,” but advocates have questioned the move, considering the thousands of people incarcerated in the U.S. for similar crimes.
Griner Hit With Harsh Penalties
Griner plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s off-season. She was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow in February when authorities found THC oil cartridges in her luggage. During a previous hearing, she pleaded guilty to charges of possessing cannabis but claimed that she was unaware that the cartridges were in her luggage.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Griner told a Russian judge. “I made an honest mistake. And I hope that, in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence,” wrote Griner’s Russian defense team in a statement.
But in early August, Griner was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, where each day spent in custody counts as two toward the completion of her sentence, according to People.
At the penal colony, Griner will have to work eight hours a day sewing, cleaning, cooking or serving food. Vice President of the Russian Department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee Ivan Melnikov told reporters that there is a chance that Griner will be allowed to coach basketball while in prison, but most prisoners are forced to sew.
Conditions in Russian penal colonies are reportedly very poor. Prisoners suffer from lack of food and insufficient health care.
Advocates Highlight U.S. Laws
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that it is working to free Griner from imprisonment. Following the ruling, Biden released a statement demanding Russia free the basketball star. “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” wrote the president. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.” Whelan is another U.S. citizen in custody of the Russian government.
While cannabis advocates in the U.S. have also been calling for Griner’s release, many are highlighting what they see as hypocrisy in the American government’s reaction to the case.
In an opinion piece written for USA Today, Executive Director and General Counsel for the Last Prisoner Project Sarah Gersten, pointed out that more than 100,000 Americans are waiting in pretrial detention for drug charges and that non-U.S. citizens are regularly imprisoned for bringing cannabis into the country.
“Of course, there is a major differentiating factor in Griner’s case,” wrote Gersten. “She’s a celebrity. But excepting her status as a pro athlete, Griner—a Black gay woman—would be subject to the disproportionately higher rates of enforcement for cannabis possession that affect marginalized communities, particularly people of color, in the United States.”
In a press release, NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri called for immediate policy changes in the U.S. that mirrored the sentiments being expressed by the Biden administration. “The time for platitudes is over,” wrote Altieri. “The United States government needs to realize the current federal policy of marijuana prohibition and anti-marijuana laws in many states aren’t notably different than the stance held by Putin’s regime in Russia and take real action to end those failed policies.”
“MPP stands with the millions of Americans calling for the immediate release of Brittney Griner,” tweeted Marijuana Policy Project. “We vow to continue our fight to legalize cannabis and free those unfairly imprisoned for possession around the world and right here in the United States.”
Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk had something to say about the case. During an episode of the Full Send podcast, Musk said, “If the president is working so hard to sort of free someone who’s in jail in Russia for some weed, then shouldn’t we free people in America?”
Hope For Griner
Experts on the Griner case say there’s still hope that she could come home before fulfilling her sentence. For months, rumors have been circulating that the U.S. State Department has been in negotiations with Russia over a prisoner trade with convicted weapons trafficker Viktor Bout. Many believe that Griner’s sentencing is a method to employ pressure on the American government to finalize a trade-off.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their [Griner and Whelan] release,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in late July. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution.”
In the meantime, Griner will have to live in a penal colony while she waits for her appeal for a commuted sentence to go through or for authorities to secure her release. Russian authorities have not released the location where Griner is being held.