After nearly nine months in Russian detention, Brittney Griner has been released as part of a prisoner swap, the Biden administration announced Thursday morning.
The development comes after months of rumors of an attempted prisoner swap—and just weeks after Griner was formally transferred to a Russian penal colony to begin serving a 9-year sentence. While Griner's release is welcome news, it's important to remember that her imprisonment was so outrageous not just because of its obvious political motivation but also because no one should face prison time for nonviolent drug offenses.
Griner was originally detained at a Moscow airport in February after Russian officials allegedly found hashish oil cartridges in her luggage. Griner later pled guilty to drug possession charges and was given a nearly decadelong sentence in August. Even for Russia, where drug regulations are much harsher than they are in the U.S., the sentence was excessive—and provided further evidence that Griner, who was arrested just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, was possibly being imprisoned for political reasons.
For weeks as news of a possible prisoner swap petered out, it seemed as though Griner's hope of an early release was faint. However, according to State Department officials, a complex series of negotiations were taking place behind closed doors, eventually allowing for Griner's release. Griner was transferred into U.S. custody at an airport in Abu Dhabi Thursday, and U.S. officials flew Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill Americans, to the United Arab Emirates as part of the prisoner exchange.
Notably, American citizen Paul Whelan was left out of the prisoner exchange. U.S. officials had hoped to free Whelan, a former Marine who has been detained in Russia for four years after facing espionage charges—which he has consistently denied—but were unable to reach an agreement for a second U.S. citizen imprisoned in Russia.
"While we celebrate Brittney's release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly," Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in a press release on Thursday. "Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney."
Griner's return serves as an end to a terrible monthslong ordeal for the WNBA player. However, while Griner got a happy ending after months of separation and possible abuse in Russian detention, it's worth keeping in mind just how many nonviolent drug offenders are serving similar sentences in U.S. prisons with little hope of early release.
While there are no people currently federally* imprisoned in the U.S. for simple cannabis possession—as Griner was in Russia—many are imprisoned on other marijuana-related charges, such as distribution. Data on how many people are currently incarcerated in federal prisons on marijuana-related charges are sparse and often unreliable. The Last Prisoner Project, a prison reform group, estimates that there are roughly 3,000 to 10,000 federal cannabis prisoners while noting that getting a precise number on the question is difficult with the currently available information. More broadly, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 45 percent of federal prisoners were convicted of a drug charge—though it is difficult to know how many are imprisoned solely for nonviolent drug offenses.
While it is important to keep in mind that Griner's original sentence was unusually harsh, even by Russian standards, U.S. drug laws shouldn't be let off the hook. Griner's imprisonment was an outrage, but so too is the imprisonment of all nonviolent drug offenders.
*CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that there are no people incarcerated solely for marijuana possession in federal prisons.