The WNBA star was jailed and fined for possessing a small amount of CBD oil as she landed in Russia for what she thought was an American off-season playing opportunity
US basketball player Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in jail and fined one million roubles (about $16,000 or euros) for possession of less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in Russia.
The case has become global front page news.
While her cannabis possession case is still, tragically, far from uncommon (anywhere in the world), there are many reasons why this case has become a cause célèbre. Here are a few of them.
Brittney Griner is a Medical Cannabis User
Griner was arrested in Russia with a small amount of cannabis oil (in vape cartridges) in her luggage in February. Her lawyers have stated that she has been authorized to use medical cannabis in Arizona since 2013 even though the use of medical cannabis remains banned by the W.N.B.A. As reported by Reuters, she testified that she uses cannabis for pain after suffering sports-related injuries that included leaving her confined to a wheelchair. She also testified that she had not meant to bring the cannabis oil with her, but it had mistakenly ended up in her luggage as an oversight.
While the U.S. State Department has condemned her arrest and subsequent detention and President Joe Biden has condemned her detention as “unacceptable,” cannabis, for both medical and recreational use remains illegal on a federal level in the U.S. The Biden White House has pledged to stop at nothing to obtain her release, even though the Biden Administration has remained openly hostile to cannabis users – including prohibiting them from working in the White House. Donald Trump has also criticized American efforts to free Griner, saying that she was “spoiled” and deserved to be in prison.
47% of all federal prisoners in the United States in 2020 were incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Even though these arrests have slowly declined over the last decade, over 1,000 people were sentenced to federal prison terms for violation of cannabis laws.
Brittney Griner’s Case is “Political”
There are multiple reasons that the political media is abuzz with this story beyond the cannabis theme. The first of course, is that in the United States, at least, Black people are far more likely to face a drugs charge as white people. In other countries, including in Europe, those of darker skin tones are also more vulnerable to such charges. In France, for example, Muslims face a much higher risk of being arrested for drugs than other people.
Beyond this, Griner’s arrest occurred just one week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many international political analysts believe her arrest was a strategic move by the Russian government to obtain leverage over the US. It has been widely reported that Russian officials want to arrange a prisoner swap for Griner in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout – the so-called Merchant of Death and Lord of War.
Could This Case Change Global Cannabis Laws?
There are two places where cannabis reform is now on the table on a federal level – the US and Germany. Both are also on the front lines of the geopolitical crisis caused when Russia invaded Ukraine. In the case of Germany, which is likely to legalize recreational cannabis use as early as 2024 and made medical cannabis use legal in 2017, the Griner case has made the front page of national news. Germany is also facing the worst inflation since the end of WWII and an energy crisis as a direct result of the Ukraine war.
While it very likely she will not end up serving her term and be brought back to the United States, it is unlikely that Griner’s situation will change political debate about cannabis laws in any country.
Here is why. Germany is on track to authorize recreational use anyway. In the U.S., despite the language in the current Senate Bill intended to address the racial inequities in drugs sentencing – at least for cannabis – a case such as this is also unlikely to change votes in the U.S. Congress. The political system in the U.S. is highly dysfunctional. High profile cannabis arrests have also (at least so far) failed to change the law.
What Happens Next?
Griner will be sent to work in a labour camp. In the meantime, diplomatic efforts will proceed between the United States and Russia to determine if and when she goes free, and under what circumstances. Given her conviction, not to mention the war in Ukraine, it is unlikely she will ever play again in Russia.
Those convicted of serious “crimes” for similar offenses – and in any country – are also unlikely to magically be set free. No matter the outrage caused by this case, Drug War era laws remain on the books in almost every country – including those who are making the most noise now about being “outraged.”
The reality is that Griner is just the latest high-profile casualty of a long, dark period of human history that has yet to come to an end, even though the end is now coming into sight.