Imagine being detained in Russia on cannabis possession charges only to see the country go to war a couple of weeks later? That is currently the reality for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
For those who don’t follow the WNBA, Griner is legit. She’s used her dominant 6’9” frame to win a ring with the Phoenix Mercury, been the WNBA blocks leader eight times, a three-time All-WNBA First Team member, and a two-time scoring champion.
A year into her WNBA career in 2014, she started heading to Russia in the offseasons to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Yekaterinburg, Russia. She has enjoyed similar success there, winning the Russian Premier League three times, EuroLeague four times, and the Russian Cup.
All that success would take a turn for the worst when Griner was caught at the airport with some vape cartridges as first reported by Michael Crowley and Jonathan Abrams of the New York Times over the weekend. Russian authorities released a video of the incident on the same day.
The authorities said sometime in February an incident occurred with an American athlete who they were originally alerted to by a customs dog at Sheremetyevo International Airport. They went on to scan the bags and then found vape cartridges with cannabis oil in them.
Caught in Russia with Weed: A Recent History
While we have covered others caught up on cannabis charges in Russia in the past here at L.A. Weekly, Griner is by far the most high-profile person to face the circumstances. Back in 2020, just over nine grams of pot landed an Israeli-American woman in the middle of the complex world of foreign relations between the U.S., Israel and Russia.
Making things seem even grimmer for Griner’s hopes, it took a personal pardon from Putin to get the release. Naama Issachar was greeted in Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when she was released. She spent eight months in Russian custody.
So, if it took months during more peaceful times and stability in the U.S./Moscow relationship, not to mention the role Netanyahu played, one has to have trouble putting too much hope in the situation. There is the scenario that Putin pardons the multiple-time champion as an act of sport, but that would have happened by now. More likely? Griner is now a geopolitical bargaining chip.
Regardless, she’s still getting plenty of support back home. That kind of visibility is what’s going to move the chains in securing her release. Even if Putin doesn’t want to do it now, the more Griner’s name stays in the news, the more value it will have for him to make the move at some point. Especially given the current state of the world.
Griner’s wife, Cherellle, took to Instagram to thank everyone for their support and prayers.
“Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life,” Cherellle Griner said. “I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years, and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.”
Advocates Speak Out in Support
The nation’s biggest marijuana policy reform group is backing the Griners being reunited. In a statement on Monday, the Marijuana Policy Project noted it stands by Griner, her family, the WNBA, and multiple organizations calling for her immediate release and safe return to the U.S.
“We, like the entire country, are monitoring the situation in Russia regarding Brittney Griner and join many others in calling for her swift and safe return home. While we don’t have direct knowledge of this particular situation, it is not uncommon for athletes to use these oils for their physical and mental health, and they should not be penalized or stigmatized for doing so,” Toi Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in the statement. “Simple cannabis possession should never be cause for international geopolitics, as we are seeing play out in this case. After weeks of detention amid an increasingly uncertain and dangerous political environment, Brittney needs to be safely returned home as soon as humanly possible.”
Arizona dispensaries also released a statement in support of their local hero through Samuel Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association.
“We are hoping for Brittney Griner’s safe and speedy return home. No one should be afraid to travel as a cannabis consumer,” Richard said. “It is past time for everyone around the world – including the US and Russia – to end their outdated bans on cannabis. We will continue fighting these laws that needlessly put too many people in prison.”
We’ll continue to follow the situation.