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August 4, 2022

WNBA star Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years(!) in prison by Russian judge for "drug smuggling"

I know next to nothing about Russia's criminal justice system, but I do know I was still shocked to hear about basketball star Brittney Griner's sentencing before a Russian judge today.  This Fox News report provides these details:

Brittney Griner, an American basketball superstar and Olympic gold medalist, learned her hate in a Russian court after she pleaded guilty to a drug charge last month.

A Russian judge convicted Griner of drug possession and drug smuggling and sentenced her to 9 years in prison. She was also fined 1 million rubles, the equivalent of about $16,400.

Griner, 31, appeared in a courtroom in Khimki, just outside Moscow. She issued an apology ahead of her verdict and sentencing as prosecutors pushed for a 9.5-year sentence....

Griner contended she made "an honest mistake" when she brought vape cartridges containing oils derived from cannabis into a Moscow airport back in February, adding "I hope in your ruling it does not end my life." Griner was returning to her Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg after their was a pause in the season for international play. She called Yekaterinburg her "second home."...

Russian prosecutors argued Griner purposely packed the cannabis oil. Griner’s lawyers argued that Griner was using marijuana to treat pain. But Russian officials said the U.S. laws regarding the legality of the drug had no bearing on the Russian judicial system.

The U.S. State Department had classified Griner as "wrongfully detained." United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed last week that the Biden administration offered a "substantial proposal" for the return of the basketball player and fellow American Paul Whelan. Blinken said during a press conference that the Biden administration made the proposal weeks ago and is hoping to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time since Feb. 15.

Russian media has speculated the trade could be for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death," who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia made a "bad faith" response to the U.S. government’s offer. She did not elaborate. Russian officials have made clear that no prisoner swap could happen until a conviction and sentence is handed down.

President Biden reacted to Russia’s sentencing. "Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible," he said.

It seems likely that all sorts of politics, both international and domestic, played a role in this sentencing outcome. And I am inclined to predict that Griner will be back on American soil well before 2031. But despite all the international intrigue in play and whatever happens next, the sad reality is that the US in the past (and still today) has sentenced plenty of individuals to many years on various types of drug charges.  And that drug war reality necessarily impacts our nation's ability to assert the moral high ground when it comes to reacting to harsh law enforcement in other nations.

August 4, 2022 at 11:58 AM | Permalink


A very odd case. She'll be used in trade. It sends a message that Russia is a serious and independent country.

Posted by: restless94110 | Aug 4, 2022 12:27:07 PM

Any thoughts on the likely sentencing outcomes for a person committing the same acts into the United States?

Posted by: Greg Varner | Aug 4, 2022 1:12:22 PM

I'm sorry but I really do not understand why she should get any sympathy. You bring stuff into a foreign country you had better be sure it is all legal there.

I certainly don't understand why the US government should provide her any assistance whatsoever.

Do the crime, do the time.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 4, 2022 7:37:47 PM

Same acts in the U.S. would probably be charged at the state level and reduced down to a misdemeanor with probation and/or a fine. That is based on my understanding that we are talking about a small number of vape cartridges. Potentially, those cartridges would not even qualify as marijuana under U.S. law.

As for why U.S. is involved, I think the sentence shows why the U.S. is involved. That sentence and the request were on the high end of the punishment range for what appears to be a relatively small offense. The thought is that this case is being pushed by the top level of the Russian government simply because she is an American with some degree of celebrity (albeit in the relative small percentage of the population who follows women's basketball) and this is a chance to get back at the U.S.

Posted by: tmm | Aug 5, 2022 10:55:34 AM


Except their assistance appears to be based on the idea that she is "wrongfully detained", which seems to indicate that it's due to her being in any trouble at all rather than its degree.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 5, 2022 11:33:48 AM

The sentence only makes sense as a diplomatic bargaining chip driven decision. On February 17, 2022, Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport after the Federal Security Service found she was carrying vaporizer cartridges containing hash oil; she had been prescribed medicinal cannabis in Arizona, and it is illegal in Russia. Russian prosecutors argued she had approximately 0.7 grams of cannabis in vape cartridges - about 2% of an ounce of cannabis with a fair market value on the order of $40-$55. https://internationalhighlife.com/thc-cartridge-price-around-the-usa/

This was without a doubt an amount for personal use, rather than a "drug dealing" amount for distribution to others, and there were mitigating circumstances given its prescribed medical use and her lack of knowledge that she could face anything remotely approaching 9.5 years in prison and a $16,000+ fine for this infraction. Such long sentences, even in Russia, are normally reserved for profoundly more serious crimes.

This sentence is of a piece with the July 2022 sentencing by Russia of Aleksei Gorinov, a municipal councillor from one of Moscow’s districts, to seven years in jail for disseminating “knowingly false information” after he criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, under a law enacted in March of 2022. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-military-false-news/31737627.html

This said, hundreds of people have been executed for drug trafficking in the former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union. https://law.jrank.org/pages/685/Comparative-Criminal-Law-Enforcement-Russia-Substantive-criminal-law.html

Posted by: ohwilleke | Aug 9, 2022 2:21:00 PM

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