War on Drugs

Brittney Griner's Russian Detention Is a Reminder of What Happens When You Declare War on Drugs

The WNBA player has been detained in Russia on drug possession charges since February.


WNBA player Brittney Griner penned a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday, asking that he not "forget" about her and other American detainees in Russia. Griner has been detained in Russia since February 17 following her arrest for allegedly carrying cannabis oil in her luggage through a Moscow airport.

"As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I'm terrified I might be here forever," Griner wrote.

She continued: "On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran….It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year."

Griner's trial began on Monday. According to Russian state media, officials claim that the Phoenix Mercury center "bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil" to Russia in February. Griner faces up to a 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

In May, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan stated that Griner was wrongfully detained. He wrote that "wrongful detention as a bargaining chip is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling and living abroad."

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson echoed the sentiment on Monday, saying that "President Biden has been clear about the need to see all U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released, including Brittney Griner. The U.S. government continues to work aggressively—using every available means—to bring her home."

In her letter, Griner called on Biden to do more to free her and other American detainees from Russian detention. "Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore," she wrote. "I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home."

While Griner's arrest and detention are possibly politically motivated—her arrest came just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and her trial takes place as international sanctions continue to weigh on the Kremlin—the case highlights the more general issues that come with harsh drug laws. The war on drugs creates illicit markets for targeted substances, rather than eliminating them. Punitive drug laws empower overzealous state actors to harass, assault, and violate the rights of people suspected or convicted of drug possession. Despite the nonviolent, essentially unharmful nature of many drug crimes, individuals like Griner are subject to outsized punishment. Griner is wrongfully detained. So is every individual imprisoned on petty drug possession charges, regardless of his or her importance on the international stage.

"I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now," Griner wrote. "I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home."

Griner has been trapped in Russia for over four months. With fewer than 1 percent of Russian trials ending in acquittal, she will likely be trapped in the country for much longer if the Biden administration cannot negotiate her release.