The White House is maintaining that WNBA star Brittney Griner is “wrongfully detained” in Russia even after she pleaded guilty to unlawfully possessing cannabis vape cartridges in the country. But as American officials continue to seek her release, questions are being raised about whether federal marijuana prohibition in the U.S. is undermining its position in the case.
Some wondered whether Griner’s guilty plea to a charge punishable by up to 10 years in prison would impact the State Department’s earlier designation of the athlete as a wrongfully detained American national. But at a briefing on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly affirmed that the U.S. stance has not changed.
“We believe that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner, and she is in intolerable circumstances right now,” Jean-Pierre said. “We are going to do everything that we can—the president has this top of mind—to make sure that we get Brittney home safely.”
“We’ve been clear from day one that, when it comes to U.S. nationals who are being held abroad, who are being held wrongfully, detained wrongfully, who have been held hostage, we are going to do everything that we can [and] use every means that we have to bring them home,” she said.
Reforms to U.S. federal marijuana policies wouldn’t change the fact that Russia enforces severe penalties for marijuana, but the ongoing criminalization of cannabis domestically hasn’t gone ignored by Russian officials.
A spokesperson for the country’s foreign minister has made clear that they feel there was nothing improper about the athlete’s February detention at a Moscow airport, and he made a point to say that marijuana possession is also “punishable in some U.S. states.”
Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “the U.S. exported the drug war across the globe and Brittney Griner is the latest high-profile victim of these policies.”
There are several factors that can lead the U.S. to classify someone as a “wrongfully detained” person in a foreign country, so it’s possible that officials aren’t basing the designation on the question of innocence of guilt, per se. It could be the case that they believe Griner is being held for political reasons amid ongoing tension over Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, or as leverage to negotiate a prisoner swap.
A Moscow correspondent for NPR who has been in the courtroom covering the case speculated that it may have been a letter that President Joe Biden sent to Griner that influenced her to make a guilty plea as a diplomatic strategy.
In any case, advocates say that situation underscores the need to end marijuana prohibition at the federal level, to serve as an example to other countries that also continue to criminalize people over cannabis. Biden himself campaigned on unfulfilled promises to reform marijuana laws.
“Just like the U.S. set the drug war precedent, it must be the leader in dismantling its harms,” DPA’s Perez said. “Ending federal marijuana prohibition is a common-sense first step. If marijuana had been legalized in the U.S., this country would be better positioned to fight for her release and other countries would undoubtedly also move away from drug war policies like marijuana prohibition.”
Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, echoed that point, telling Marijuana Moment that the “Biden administration would have more credibility in their efforts to save Brittney Griner if they followed through on their campaign promise to domestically decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and pardon those who have been previously convicted.”
(Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
Morgan Fox, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that the Biden administration “should be commended for making the release of Brittany Griner a diplomatic priority, although I hope that it follows through on this matter more seriously and effectively than it has on the President’s other cannabis-related promises.”
“No one should be imprisoned over cannabis, and BG doesn’t deserve to lose many years of her life over this any more than she deserves being used as a geopolitical bargaining chip,” he said. “Once she is released, I hope that this unfortunate situation forces the Administration to reflect on the fact that there are still places in this country with cannabis policies as draconian as those in Russia, and federal law isn’t that much better.”
Biden recently read a handwritten letter from Griner that asked that the administration not forget about her case or “the other American detainees” in Russia. “Please do all you can to bring us home,” she wrote.
The president also called the wife of Griner on Wednesday to assure her that the U.S. was doing all that it could to secure the her release. However, those efforts have been complicated by the ongoing international tension over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Tuesday, a letter signed by nearly 1,200 Black women leaders was delivered to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, imploring the administration to act quickly to bring Griner home. The daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., Bernice King, and former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile were among the signatories.
Rev. Al Sharpton, Griner’s wife Cherelle and WNBA players are holding a press conference on Friday to further draw attention to the case and advocate for the athlete’s release.
“Brittney has admitted to making a mistake, and I hope the Russian authorities recognize that humbling act and respond with compassion,” Sharpton said. “She is in the fight of her life right now.”
But the circumstances around the case are complicated, especially in light of the formal admission of guilt. 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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