Drug Policy

Brittney Griner's 9-Year Sentence Highlights Stark Differences Between Russian and U.S. Pot Penalties

Travelers caught with small amounts of marijuana at the U.S. border face much less severe punishment.


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plan to negotiate the possible release of WNBA player Brittney Griner, who yesterday was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for traveling with cannabis products. That jaw-dropping punishment highlights stark differences between the United States and Russia in the treatment of minor marijuana offenses.

In February, Griner was caught with cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. The Phoenix Mercury star said she uses marijuana for medical purposes, as permitted by Arizona law (which also allows recreational use), and inadvertently packed the cartridges when she left for Russia, where she planned to play with the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason.

In Russia, possessing less than seven grams of marijuana (about a quarter of an ounce) is an administrative offense punishable by fines. Possessing seven grams or more triggers criminal penalties, which can include up to two years of "corrective labor." But because Griner brought marijuana into Russia, she was charged with smuggling a "significant amount" of "narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances," which carries a sentence of five to 10 years.

How would a traveler entering the United States be treated in similar circumstances?  For small amounts of marijuana similar to what Griner possessed, U.S. Customs and Border Protection warns that travelers could face "federal civil penalties of up to $1,000." It adds that "CBP officers may also turn the case over to state and local departments for prosecution," in which case the penalties would depend on the law in the destination state.

Marijuana possession penalties vary widely from state to state. In the 19 states that have legalized recreational use, there are no civil or criminal penalties for possession up to a specified ceiling, typically an ounce but more in some places. A traveler arriving in New York with up to three ounces of marijuana or up to 24 grams of concentrates, for example, would face no state penalties in addition to the possible federal fine.

In Texas, where I live, possessing two ounces or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $2,000 fine. But possession of concentrates (which Griner had) is treated more severely: Even possession of less than a gram is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.

Across the border in Oklahoma (where marijuana is legal only for medical use), simple possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. The same penalties apply to concentrates. ArkansasFloridaIdahoSouth DakotaTennessee, and Wyoming have similar penalties, although sentences typically fall short of the maximum.

In other states, such as Delaware, Maryland, and New Hampshire, possession of small amounts is a civil offense punishable by a modest fine. Some states, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Dakota, treat low-level marijuana possession as a criminal offense but preclude jail. Like Texas, they may punish possession of concentrates more severely. In Mississippi, for example, possessing as little as a tenth of a gram or less can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Such penalties are severe compared to none at all, of course, and even a misdemeanor conviction can carry ancillary penalties more consequential than the sentence itself. Furthermore, growing or distributing marijuana can still result in long prison terms, including life sentences, under state or federal law—an injustice that is especially striking now that 37 states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. But compared to the situation prior to the 1970s, when states routinely treated marijuana possession as a felony, the current regime seems mild, and it certainly looks enlightened compared to Russia's approach.