A Russian court has sentenced Brittney Griner to nine years in a penal colony for bringing weed vapes into the country.
Russian police arrested Griner at an airport near Moscow after customs agents discovered hash oil vape cartridges in her luggage. The WNBA All-Star was charged with drug smuggling and sent directly to prison. At her trial, Griner claimed that she had left the weed in her bags accidentally, and displayed proof that she was a registered medical marijuana patient in her home state of Arizona. High-THC cannabis is strictly prohibited in Russia, even for medical use, so this explanation did nothing to sway the court's decision.
Griner's legal team was already preparing for the worst, since 99% of all Russian criminal trials reportedly end in a conviction, but attorneys hoped the court would issue a lenient sentence. It didn't. Griner was sentenced to 9 years in a penal colony, plus the time she already served. The total sentence is only six months shorter than the 10-year maximum sentence for cannabis trafficking.
"Today's sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn," said Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, in a social media post.
The timing of Griner's arrest was particularly unlucky, as it occurred just a week before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. America has provided Ukraine with financial and military assistance over the course of the war, and Russian officials have accused the US of using the conflict to fight a “proxy war” against them. Under these circumstances, it's clear that Russia had no plans to offer leniency in the case.
President Biden has demanded Griner’s release, and many other politicians, celebrities, and cannabis advocates have made pleas for clemency. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, responded that his country would not bow to “megaphone diplomacy,” The Guardian reports. However, Lavrov did suggest that Russia was open to negotiating for Griner's safe return in private.
"It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates," said Biden in a statement reported by NPR. "My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."
The penal system in Russia, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in a European country, oversees nearly 520,000 inmates, the Associated Press reported last year. Most of the prison facilities in Russia are known as penal colonies because inmates are required to perform labor during their sentence.
US officials have reportedly offered a deal to release Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who was arrested in 2011 for selling weapons to terrorist groups. In exchange, Russia would free Griner and Paul Whelan, a US Marine who was arrested for alleged espionage. This deal completely ignores Marc Fogel, an American school teacher who was sentenced to 14 years for bringing a half-ounce of medical pot into Russia, though.
Cannabis advocates have criticized Biden and other politicians for working to free Griner while ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of Americans are currently locked in US prisons for the very same crime. Elon Musk even joined the chorus of critics pointing out the hypocrisy of condemning Russia for arresting someone for weed, when American cops and the DEA do the same thing every single day.
“Brittney Griner’s sentence of nine years in a penal colony for simple possession is a grotesque affront to the concept of justice and an unfortunate reminder of how draconic marijuana laws remain around the globe,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri in a statement. “However, it should also cause a serious level of reflection amongst our lawmakers and officials who feign disgust at the draconic punishment Griner is facing while turning a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding American citizens we throw in jail for the same crime.”
“Officials in the United States should do all they can to free Griner, but just as important, end the hypocrisy of acting repulsed by her sentencing while maintaining marijuana criminalization at home by bringing our domestic marijuana policies in line with our nation’s stated principles of liberty and justice,” Altieri added.
Despite the criticism, it seems like Russia may be considering the plan to release Griner and Whelan. “We are ready to discuss the issue [of a swap], but this should be done via the channel approved by the presidents, Putin and Biden,” Lavrov said, according to The Guardian.