The arrest of American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, 31, on drug charges in Russia was confirmed Saturday amid the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Griner plays in Russia during the WNBA off-season.
Russian customs officials searched Griner’s luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. They discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a cannabis concentrate that is legal in Arizona, the home state of Griner’s WNBA team.
Unfortunately, Russia is much more draconian in its drug laws than the United States. A criminal case against the 7-time WNBA All-Star player has been opened into the “large-scale transportation of drugs,” which can result in up to 10 years in prison, according to the New York Times.
Griner has a large team working to support her, according to her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas.
“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 W.N.B.A. and N.B.A.,” she said in a statement to ESPN on Saturday.
Because this is such a tumultuous time in the relations between Russia and the rest of the world, frankly, Griner will need all the support that she can get to avoid being severely punished for having the vape cartridges. However, what will happen to the other Americans facing persecution in Russia due to Putin’s crackdown, who may not have an entire professional sports league standing behind them?
On the same day as Griner was confirmed to have been detained, the State Department issued a formal advisory urging US citizens to leave Russia immediately due to the persecution of Americans as tensions rise between the US and Russia.
“I obviously don’t know the circumstances of her detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” warned Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow. “Get out. Shut down your businesses now.”
All things considered, this is just a relatively minor example of Russia flexing its authoritarian power. Things will only be worse for other Americans trapped in the country who don’t have Griner’s popularity, money, and influence.
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “We’re doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”
This is notably ironic because hashish oil, like all THC products, is still federally illegal in the U.S. More broadly, there are currently about 40,000 Americans incarcerated on marijuana charges.
We’re all rooting for Griner and hoping she is able to overcome this injustice. Yet while Russia is absolutely in the wrong for incarcerating someone over a plant extract, the US needs to get its act together as well.