American basketball player Brittney Griner was been sentenced on Thursday to nine years in Russian prison after being found guilty of possessing cannabis vape cartridges.
The case has captured international attention, placed pressure on the White House to secure her release and prompted calls from advocates and lawmakers to reform U.S. marijuana laws that similarly criminalize people over cannabis.
In a statement on Thursday, President Joe Biden said that Griner’s sentencing “is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney.” The State Department classified Griner as a “wrongfully detained” person and maintained that designation even after she pleaded guilty to the cannabis possession charge.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan [who is serving a 16-year sentence over alleged espionage in Russia] home safely as soon as possible.”
Statement by President Joe Biden on the Sentencing of Wrongfully Detained American Brittney Griner: https://t.co/LaGPbGwNFU
— Karine Jean-Pierre (@PressSec) August 4, 2022
At a White House press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Griner’s case was a central focus. National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said that the athlete “shouldn’t have even been on trial” because she was “wrongfully detained.”
“Absent that, we find the sentence reprehensible in its scope,” he said, adding that there’s a trend in Russia’s judicial system where foreigners generally face more severe sentences compared to Russians over similar drug offenses.
Still, while a majority of U.S. states have legalized marijuana in some form, including Arizona where Griner is a registered medical cannabis patient, federal law still strictly prohibits marijuana. A first offense for possession of any amount of cannabis under federal criminal code is punishable by up to one year in prison, with sentences increasing for subsequence offenses.
U.S. law might not be as severe, or enforced as consistently, but advocates argue that Griner’s case demonstrates the urgent need for federal marijuana reform, even if it might not directly affect the athlete’s overseas case. Russian officials have been unwilling to accept a prisoner swap that U.S. officials have reportedly floated, which would involve releasing Griner in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer.
“Today’s sentencing of Griner underscores the need for domestic cannabis reform,” Martiza Perez, director of the office of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “The U.S. is responsible for exporting the drug war across the globe. It still arrests, incarcerates, and deports people for low-level cannabis arrests and convictions.”
“This makes it incredibly challenging to protect U.S. citizens abroad. We cannot stand on a moral or legal high ground because we don’t have it,” Perez said. “The US must end marijuana prohibition and remedy the harms of mass cannabis criminalization.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement regarding Brittney Griner: pic.twitter.com/FMQZsHBDVv
— NBA (@NBA) August 4, 2022
Russian officials have strongly contested the U.S. characterization of the appropriateness of Griner’s prosecution. A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry went so far as to point out that the U.S. position is somewhat hypocritical given that people are still criminalized over cannabis in both countries.
At her sentencing hearing, Griner pleaded with the judge not to “end her life” over the cannabis offense, saying she “made an honest mistake,” according to Reuters.
“This is playing out on the world stage for everyone to see,” U.S. Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA) told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Thursday, adding that Griner has found herself caught in a “political battle that she shouldn’t have been in, as with many, many Americans who have found themselves in similar situations.”
“This gives us an opportunity to highlight the complexity, the hypocrisy and the urgency to level the field on these misdemeanors and criminal on cannabis charges,” the congressman said. “We should use this as a shining example of the things that are wrong in our world, in our country, and recognize that we have opportunities now to fix them.”
Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “a sad state of affairs that Brittney Griner is a political pawn to one of the few countries that criminalize cannabis more heavily than the United States.”
“As President Biden continues to declare Griner wrongfully detained, he should take steps to uncouple the fact both the U.S. and Russia incarcerate Americans for cannabis possession,” Strekal said.
Steven Hawkins, CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council, called Griner a “political prisoner” and said the sentence is “an outrage.”
But he also told Marijuana Moment that it should be a “wakeup call for Americans.”
“Her trial and sentence in Russia may seem like an outlier at a time of sweeping acceptance and legalization, but it isn’t. Cannabis remains illegal and possession is harshly punished around the world. The US is no exception,” he said, pointing to a recent Mississippi Supreme Court ruling upholding a life sentence for a cannabis possession charge.
“Thousands of Americans are in prison at this moment for cannabis charges,” Hawkins said. “We call on President Biden to get Griner home safely and clean up our own affairs by granting a blanket pardon for cannabis offenses and encouraging state and local expungement efforts.”
While Biden has taken no meaningful steps to decriminalize marijuana or broadly free cannabis prisoners as he promised on the campaign trail, he did make his first public comment on marijuana policy since taking office last month, reiterating that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over the plant.
But even with the executive authority to grant mass pardons to people with federal cannabis convictions, the administration is still in the process of exploring its clemency options, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week.
“A sentence of nine years for possession of a minuscule amount of cannabis product—clearly without ‘criminal intent’—is a travesty, but not especially surprising,” NORML Political Director Morgan Fox told Marijuana Moment. “Brittney Griner is obviously being used as a political pawn, and as such has become yet another victim of the global war on cannabis consumers which has been largely perpetuated by her home country.”
“The chickens of prohibition are coming home to roost, and people like Brittney Griner are paying the price.”
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state lawmakers and congressional candidate, said that Biden must do all that he can to secure Griner’s release in light of the harsh sentencing, and he must also “correct that injustice here in America, too.”
Brittney Griner being sentenced to 9 years in jail over cannabis is egregious.@POTUS must do everything in his power to get her back to the US.
He also must correct that injustice here in America, too. Far too many people are locked up over non-violent drug offenses.
— Nina Turner (@ninaturner) August 4, 2022
“Far too many people are locked up over non-violent drug offenses,” she said.
Derek Kitchen, a Democratic state senator in Utah said that “marijuana propaganda and disinformation has led to inappropriate criminalization of natural medicine around the world.”
Absolutely awful. Marijuana propaganda and disinformation has led to inappropriate criminalization of natural medicine around the world. Now #britneygriner is paying the price behind bars in Russia. She deserves to come home. https://t.co/51Ph4zVY4k
— Senator Derek Kitchen (@derekkitchen) August 4, 2022
“Now [Griner] is paying the price behind bars in Russia,” he said. “She deserves to come home.”
Several lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), called attention to Griner’s case on Thursday, condemning the outsized penalty she’s currently facing without specifically mentioning the cannabis-related nature of the offense.
Congress supports and stands with @POTUS in making the release of Brittney Griner a priority, and our prayers are with Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, and their entire family.
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) August 4, 2022
“Absolutely wrong. Brittney, her family, and friends have been through so much during this ordeal—we must end this,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) said. “We must do everything in our power to end this injustice — and force Putin and Russia to release her immediately.”
Brittney, her family, and friends have been through so much during this ordeal — we must end this.
We must do everything in our power to end this injustice — and force Putin and Russia to release her immediately. https://t.co/8MEKHf5KXB
— Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (@RepDean) August 4, 2022
While Biden only mentioned Griner and Whelan by name in Thursday’s statement, a senior administration official also recently said that they are actively looking into another case of a U.S. citizen, Mark Fogel, who is being held in Russia over a marijuana-related offense to see if the administration can secure his release.
Fogel has not been designated as a “wrongfully detained” person at this point, however. That classification generally escalates diplomatic engagement to secure a U.S. citizen’s release.
There are several factors that can lead the U.S. to classify someone as such, so it’s possible that officials haven’t based the Griner designation on the question of innocence of guilt, per se. It could be the case that they believe she is being held for political reasons as Russia faces international condemnation over its invasion of Ukraine.
We Are BG. pic.twitter.com/xFLu0a2aSB
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) August 4, 2022
Russia has taken a particularly strong stance against reforming cannabis policy at the international level through the United Nations. And it condemned Canada for legalizing marijuana nationwide.
The deputy of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in March that legalization efforts in the U.S. and Canada are matters “of serious concern for us,” according to a social media post from the office’s official account. “It is worrisome that several Member States of the [European Union] are considering violating their drug control obligations.”
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Image element courtesy of Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia.