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The Scary Facts About US Athlete Detained in Russia on Cannabis Charges

Brittney Griner
Written by Alexandra Hicks

Two-time Olympic champion and WNBA star center for the Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner, has been arrested and detained by Russian customs authorities, who cite the finding of “vape cartridges containing hashish oil” in her luggage while she was traveling through an airport near Moscow. Although it just hit the news a couple days ago, Griner has been detained for almost 1 month now and she faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty on trumped-up charges of “drug smuggling”.  

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Who is Brittney Griner and why was she in Russia? 

Brittney Griner is a 31-year-old professional basketball player in the United States. She’s one of most well-known and highest-scoring players in the WNBA. Griner is a seven-time All Star who has won two Olympic gold medals with the US, a WNBA championship with the Mercury, and a national championship at Baylor University in Texas. 

Why Griner was even in Russia to begin with highlights the massive payment disparity between the WNBA and the NBA. Now, before we chock it up to nothing but blatant sexism, the reasoning is slightly more complex than that. As with basically all major industries, it all boils down to profitability. The NBA generates an average of $9.2 billion in annual revenue by selling tickets and merchandise, whereas the WNBA only pulls in about $75 million each year. Average paychecks reflect this, with male players earning a salary of around $6.4 million and female players getting about $78,000 on average. 

The part where salary differences actually do become somewhat biased, is in the way earnings are dispersed. NBA players get to keep 50 percent of generated revenue while WNBA players only get to keep about 20 percent. It’s not necessarily fair, but the fact of the matter is, the majority of people who watch sports are men, and they would rather watch other men play. Men are also more likely to buy jerseys, hats, hoodies, and other merchandise with team logos than women.  

Russia shares photo of WNBA star Brittney Griner in custody

Because of these income inequalities, many WNBA players travel to other countries and play on their teams during the US off season, and Russia is one of the more popular destinations for this. In Russia, WNBA players can easily rake in over $1 million, and this is on top of their US salaries. Griner has been playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2015, helping her Russian team earn three domestic titles and four EuroLeague Women championships.  

The arrest  

Having said all that, let’s focus again on the arrest. Russian authorities released a statement on Saturday, March 5th, that they had detained an “American basketball player” on drug charges. It wasn’t until later when the story had been picked up by media outlets that the athlete was identified as Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner. The Russian Federal Customs Service said they had detained Brittney after drug dogs sniffed out some cannabis oil vape carts in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. 

The video released by Russia’s Customs Service showed footage of a traveler (Brittney Griner) walking through the airport security screening area, and then someone examining a package shortly after which was removed from her bag. Based on the video timestamps, this happened back in February, meaning that Brittney has been in custody for a few weeks already. View the available footage below. 

In a statement to the Guardian, Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas said: “We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA.” 

The Customs Service stated that a “criminal case had been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs”, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. This is not the first time an American has been arrested in Russia for specious charges, but the current state of affairs makes this situation particularly sketchy, even for someone who has a successful athletic career in the country.  

Cannabis laws in Russia  

To quickly summarize cannabis laws in Russia – it’s illegal. However, similar to many other countries and even US states, small amounts of product have been decriminalized for personal use since 2004. In Russia, it’s up to 6 grams of flower or 2 grams of hash. Decriminalization in Russia means this would be treated simply as an administrative offence, punishable but a fine or up to 15 days in jail.  

This is all outlined in Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code. Though this doesn’t qualify for decriminalization by technical standards used in other places, it does minimize the legal consequences for those who are using cannabis personally. Anything over the above listed amounts would subject a person to criminal prosecution. 

So if you were wondering why on earth anyone would travel to Russia with vape carts, it’s likely because Griner has been traveling there for almost a decade at this point, and was familiar with the fact that the country had decriminalized a couple grams of concentrate. I couldn’t find it stated anywhere how much cannabis oil she was caught with, and it’s hard to say what the specifics are on THC oils since that is a different product from hash.   

Is Brittney in danger? 

Politicians, fellow athletes, activists, and friends of Brittney’s are calling for her release amid growing fears that Vladimir Putin could use her as a pawn for leverage during the ongoing war in Ukraine and as tensions with Russia and the rest of the world continue to intensify. Texas congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, had this to say on the matter: 

“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items but let me be very clear, Brittney Griner is a United States citizen, she was a guest in Russia … and I will be demanding her release.” 

Again, some fear that the situation could become even more fraught for Brittney, like former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine Evelyn Farkas. “If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,” said Farkas. “It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.” 

Knowing what we know about Brittney (high profile US citizen, African-American, female, queer), and knowing what we know about Russia (hostile, currently embroiled in international conflict, government that is known to commit many human rights violations against minorities, LGBTQ, and women), it’s within reason to assume that Brittney might be in a dangerous situation as we speak.  

For example, in an interview with BBC, numerous people of color living in Russia described how they were treated on a regular basis – which ranged from casual racism to physical assaults and systemic issues that impact various quality-of-life aspects. Examples include being barred from some rental properties and jobs, denied entry into restaurants and other businesses, racial slurs, and so on. The situation with racism can be especially dicey for those who have been arrested, detained, or incarcerated. 

Now, let’s examine how women are often treated in Russia. In 2017, a law was passed that decriminalized first offenses of domestic battery and in 2018, the Russian government statistics agency recorded a total of 8,300 women murdered in the country. That comes out to an average of 22 per day. And the situation is said to have grown worse since the pandemic began. Compare that to the UK average of one woman killed every three days, and you realize how massive a problem this is. Efforts to protect Russian women are often seen by conservative lawmakers as “an infringement on the rights of the family”. 

Add to all this, Brittney is a lesbian, and Russia is known to have some of the strictest anti-LGBTQ laws in the entire world. In Russia, gay marriage is illegal, but it goes even further than that. Many citizens are not open to those in the LGBTQ community, stating that they would not accept them as neighbors or colleagues and feel they are a threat to traditional ways of life. LGBTQ people living in Russia face regular threats, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, abuse within their families, and discrimination in daily life. The 2013 “gay propaganda” law has increased that social hostility tenfold. 

“It taking three weeks for Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia to hit the news here is absurd and horrifying in a way that’s difficult to comprehend. Russia has some of the most anti-LGBTQ laws among major nations. It cannot be overstated the danger she’s in right now.” – Charlotte Clymer, American activist, press secretary, and writer, said on Twitter.

Final thoughts  

Although these groups are largely underrepresented, women, minorities, and LGBTQ have all played pivotal roles making the cannabis industry what it is today. Despite the many historical and political similarities, there is very little discussion regarding the ties between all of these groups and the fight to legalize cannabis in the US. They are also often the people who suffer most from prohibition and the war on drugs. 

Even during calmer times, the atmosphere in Russia can be a bit tense – especially true if you are a woman, minority, or LGBTQ; and all three are applicable in Brittney Griner’s case. Not to mention that Brittney is a high-profile detainee being held during a period of great political turbulence, making her situation all the more dire. The importance of bringing Brittney home cannot be emphasized enough.  

Colas, Griner’s agent, said in her statement, “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.” 

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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.