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.
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."
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.
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.
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.