A women’s basketball star has been held in Russia for nearly two months, accused of bringing cannabis oil into the country. Brittney Griner is a seven-time Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) All-Star, playing Center for the Phoenix Mercury. The Houston native also holds two Olympic Gold medals for her part in the women’s basketball teams in the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In the offseason, the 31-year-old has been playing basketball in the Russian Premier League on team UMMC Ekaterinburg.  As she was heading into the country, the Russian Federal Customs Service detained Griner, saying officers found hashish oil in her luggage. Hashish oil, also called hash oil, is a THC concentrate often sold in vape cartridges, which Russian officials say they found.

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What Happened

Russian state TV released a photo of Griner at a police station, holding a piece of paper with her name written on it. That photo came out on March 5th, but so far, it isn’t clear when the picture was taken – she had left for Russia in February. In that same report from Russian state TV, an official explained the arrest: "An expert determined that the liquid is a narcotic drug, cannabis oil. A criminal case has been opened against an American citizen for smuggling a significant amount of drugs."

A Russian customs agent reviewing documents in Moscow Source: Shutterstock
The outlet also released a video of Griner going through security at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. The Russian Federal Customs Service says its officials found marijuana vape cartridges in her luggage. However, Griner isn’t being charged for an amount that would be for simple personal use; instead, she’s charged for the “large-scale transportation of drugs” which can carry a ten-year prison sentence in Russia. 

Russia’s Marijuana Laws

Overall, Russia has zero-tolerance for narcotics, and marijuana is no exception.  Like in the United States, Russia ranks drugs based on how severely they’re viewed in the eyes of the government. And, like in the U.S., cannabis is a “Schedule I” drug that is strictly prohibited in all forms, be they recreational or medicinal. Growing, purchase, and use of any amount of marijuana is an offense punishable by up to several years in prison, though possession of small amounts is considered an administrative violation rather than a formal crime.  If Griner were charged with possession, rather than smuggling, she may simply face a fine and deportation. In these circumstances, that would likely be much preferred over a possible decade behind bars in a foreign country.

a cannabis leaf and seeds lying on top of a map of russia Source: Shutterstock
A 2019 law in Russia partially legalized the cultivation of “plants containing drugs” for the manufacturing of medicines for use on people or animals, but marijuana was not included on the list of plants that law affected. Thus, marijuana on its own cannot be grown or prescribed to patients for medical use.  However, certain businesses that are licensed through the government are able to use cannabis as a raw component to process and make into other materials. 

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How Griner’s Doing

Previously, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken out about Russia breaking the law by not allowing access to Griner.  “We want to see firsthand how she’s doing,” Blinken said to Arizona Central. “We want to make sure that we know that she’s OK and this is, by the way, required under international law. The Russians are required to give us that access. They have not. It has been denied.” There’s now some good news on that front: Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, says a consular officer was able to visit Griner in late March.  “We continue to insist that Russian authorities allow consistent, timely access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia,” said Price.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at a meeting Source: Wikicommons
Those Foreign Service Officers can visit the detained person to ensure the person is being treated properly and given medical care, and can contact family, friends, and employers on behalf of the detained. “The consular officer who visited with Brittney Griner was able to verify that she is doing as well as can be expected under these very difficult circumstances,” said Price. “We’ll continue to work very closely with her legal team, with her broader network to see to it that she is treated fairly and that her rights are respected.” Griner has a Russian lawyer who has also been communicating with Griner’s agent and family members.  “Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance. That includes in Russia,” said Blinken. 

Tensions Between Russia and the U.S.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Russian authorities have been accused in the past of falsely charging U.S. citizens with crimes they didn’t commit, trumping up charges to be much worse than the actual circumstances, and of planting evidence. Experts say trials happen quickly, but the appeals process is lengthy and difficult.  Griner’s detention is happening as tensions between Russia and the United States continue escalating.  U.S. credit and debit cards do not work in Russia, and sanctions imposed on Russian banks make the transfer of funds very difficult. Just as news of Griner’s detention broke, the U.S. State Department released a travel advisory for Russia, asking U.S. citizens not to travel to that country. In some parts of Russia, the State Department says Americans have been subject to terrorism, kidnapping, and civil unrest; in Crimea, officials say occupying authorities have abused Americans. 

 View of a civilian building damaged following a Russian rocket attack the city of Kyiv, Ukraine Source: Shutterstock
“Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia for detention and/or harassment, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence.  Russian officials may unreasonably delay U.S. consular assistance to detained U.S. citizens,” the advisory states. “Russian security services are increasing the arbitrary enforcement of local laws to target foreign and international organizations they consider ‘undesirable,’ and U.S. citizens should avoid travel to Russia to perform work for or volunteer with non-governmental organizations.  Russian authorities may not notify the U.S. Embassy of the detention of a U.S. citizen, and consular access to detainees may be denied or severely delayed.”

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