Brittany Griner Sentenced by Russian Court

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As most American sports fans have tracked over the last several months, basketball star Brittany Griner was recently arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced in Russia for drug offenses. The seemingly disproportionate consequences and treatment of Griner for the alleged offense – seen as relatively minor by most western standards – has drawn the scrutiny of Russia’s criminal justice system and resulted in calls for her release and diplomatic intervention.

As reported, Griner was arrested on February 17, 2022, at a Moscow airport carrying less than one gram of cannabis oil in two vape cartridges in her luggage. Cannabis is a controlled substance in Russia where Griner has played professional basketball for UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2015 during the WNBA offseason. Over growing calls for her release, Griner was held in custody by Russian officials through the start of her trial in July.

Although Griner entered a guilty plea to the drug charges on July 7, 2022, her defense team submitted evidence that she had been medically prescribed cannabis to treat chronic and acute pain and that the vape cartridges were inadvertently left in her luggage without intent to bring the substance into Russia. The charges Griner faced carried a maximum of ten years imprisonment. Despite arguments for leniency and submissions from US Basketball Associations, UMMC Ekaterinburg, and the Russian Basketball Federation attesting to Griner’s character, she was ultimately sentenced to serve nine years in prison.

Even in Russia with notoriously severe punishments for criminal offenses, Griner’s Russian defense attorneys called the sentence “absolutely unreasonable” and contend that it “contradicts the existing legal practice.” In contrast, a majority of states in the U.S. have passed some form of permissible medical marijuana laws with an increasing trend towards legalizing marijuana recreationally. Even in states like North Carolina where marijuana remains illegal, possession of less than one gram is a misdemeanor offense generally punishable (if prosecuted at all) by court costs and a small fine.

Griner’s defense team has indicated its intent to appeal the sentence, however, reports show that diplomatic talks are in the works for a prisoner swap and the U.S. State Department has classified Griner as wrongfully detained. Unfortunately, Griner’s arrest occurred a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the geopolitical environment and tensions between the United States and Russia appear to have had an outsized effect on the case. While it may be difficult to avoid unintentionally becoming a pawn between quarreling nations, athletes traveling overseas are wise to remember that laws can vary greatly across the world. Especially when traveling with controlled substances, prescribed medications, or supplements, athletes should take extreme care to ensure that they don’t unknowingly violate local laws.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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