Britney Griner has been held in custody in Moscow, Russia, since February 17th. When she arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport, officials detained her for possessing cannabis and hashish in her vape cartridges. The offense she is being accused of is drug smuggling. Brittney was traveling to Russia because she plays basketball there in the WNBA offseason.
Brittney lives in Arizona and plays for the Phoenix Mercury. She has a legal prescription from a doctor in Arizona for medicinal marijuana. And, since she was in a rush to get to the airport, Brittney says she mistakenly packed it in her bag. Her detainment in Russia was not known right away. Weeks went by before it was revealed to the public. This occurred right before Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving politicians to believe it was perpetrated.
Brittney’s Russian Connection
Brittney was going to Russia to play basketball, as she has done for years. She is just one of many WNBA players who compete internationally during their offseason. According to Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, the UMMC Ekaterinburg team in Russia pays her $1 million per season.
So, like many other WNBA players, they play in Russia to supplement their income because it pays three times more. The WNBA’s minimum salary is $60,471, and the maximum receives about $228,094.
For the past four and half months, Brittney has been in jail. During this time, she said she was ok, eating well, and not suffering. Unfortunately, there was little news about her case for a long time because the court date was set so far in advance to July 1st.
At the July 1st trial, the court asked if she was aware of and understood the charges against her. But she declined to comment. This day was also the day where they questioned two witnesses. One was an airport customs official, and another was unidentified.
The trial resumed on July 7th. It was at this time Brittney pleaded guilty to the charges. Her defense team said it was her decision and stated that pleading guilty is more likely to give a less severe sentence. The Russian court system holds a 99% conviction rate in criminal cases. I am sure Griner was made aware of these facts to weigh the odds for a more favorable and lesser outcome.
When speaking in court, she expressed that she didn’t have any intention to break the law. It was all just a big mistake. Although her possession of cannabis is legal in the USA, it is not in Russia.
Recently, on July 14th, she had another court appearance, and her detention was extended for six months. However, Brittney’s legal team released a statement saying that considering her history of contributions to charity and Russian athletics and sport, as well as the small amount of substance found, it seems likely no severe sentence will be given.
According to legal experts and the Russian Ministry in Russian trials, even if Brittney is found not guilty, the verdict could be overturned against her. However, she can only file an appeal or ask for pardon after the judgment. It cannot be done pretrial.
At her last hearing, Brittney’s lawyers recently brought in a narcologist, Mikhail Tetyushkin, to explain to the court why athletes use cannabis oil. He said that based on the WNBA player’s prescription, Brittney used the cannabis found in her luggage for medical purposes only to deal with the pain rather than recreational use. And since Brittney had a prescription, it was for medical reasons and not smuggling.
He told the court that cannabis is a popular medical treatment athletes use for relaxation and recovery. He also stated it is very popular in many countries, like the USA.
Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, has also found inconsistencies in the prosecution’s reports based on the quantity of THC in the cannabis. For example, Blagovolina said the prosecution’s expert witness did not determine how much THC was present.
The trial is still ongoing and is predicted to finish at the end of next month.
What Washington is Doing
The USA says Brittney is being held purposefully and wrongfully. Russia ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova lambasted the United States because of their lenient drug laws. She said because cannabis is legal for medical and recreational use in the USA, Brittney must be tried by Russian laws and not under legalized laws of cannabis in America.
Now, Russia wants to exchange Brittney for Russians being held captive in American prisons. The Russians would like to have Viktor Bout returned. He is serving 25 years on conspiracy to kill US citizens supporting terrorist organizations. Viktor is an international arms dealer whose nickname is “the merchant of death.”
However, he is a highly unacceptable exchange for the government because of the harshness of his crimes.
It seems the Russians are not only willing to exchange Brittney but also Paul Whelan. Whelan was imprisoned in Russia and accused of espionage.
Russian officials have commented that no viable exchanges could develop until the proceedings finish.
Many say The United States has been dragging its feet to bring Brittney home. But truthfully, they must wait for the Russian courts to move it forward. So even though tension is drastically high, the USA still must wait and see the verdict. However, the administration plans to be more aggressive in negotiating her release.
If Brittney is convicted of smuggling drugs, she could face ten years in prison.