On Tuesday, a Russian court upheld WNBA player Brittney Griner's nine-year sentence on marijuana possession charges. The denial of Griner's appeal was expected, and it will pave the way for Griner to be transferred to a Russian penal colony, where she will begin serving out her sentence. Though U.S. officials have previously indicated the possibility of a prisoner exchange, the likelihood of a swap and of Griner's release remains unclear.
In February, Griner was detained at a Moscow airport after officials allegedly found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. In the ensuing months, officials stressed the political nature of the arrest, which occurred just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In May, U.S. officials declared that Griner was "wrongfully detained."
Griner pled guilty to cannabis possession charges and was sentenced to 9.5 years in a Russian penal colony in August. The sentence, which nears the 10-year maximum for the charges, was unusually harsh—even by Russian standards. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken wrote in a statement that Griner's severe sentence "puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia's legal system and the Russian government's use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns."
After Griner's sentencing, U.S. officials attempted to negotiate a formal prisoner swap with the Russian government, offering to release arms dealers Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner. However, Russian diplomats warned against a public approach. "The U.S. already has made mistakes, trying to solve such problems via 'microphone diplomacy,'" Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Associated Press. "They are not solved that way."
It's unclear whether Griner's lawyers will attempt further appeals or whether prisoner exchange efforts will continue. According to The Washington Post, Griner's legal team said they will "confer with their client about the possibility of further appeals" and will use "all the available legal tools."
Griner's case highlights the cruelties of staunch drug prohibition—particularly how drug charges can be wielded against seemingly blameless individuals. While Russia's drug laws are no doubt more severe than those of the U.S.—for example, first-time simple marijuana possession carries a maximum sentence of just one year in jail and a fine—Griner's case emphasizes the cruelty of harsh drug laws and the difficulties defendants face when attempting to avoid draconian sentences. According to the Last Prisoner Project, a drug policy reform group, the exact number of people imprisoned in the United States on marijuana charges is unclear, though it is likely close to 10,000.
Griner's sentence and the denial of her appeal appear to be part of a politically motivated attempt to either punish the American government for its ongoing support of Ukraine or force a favorable prisoner swap. While Griner's story is quite different from other American citizens imprisoned on U.S. soil on harsh marijuana charges, her story contains striking parallels—most notably, a lengthy sentence with only the faintest hope of early release.
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