US Sports Star Faces 9yr Russian Sentence Over Vape Pen

Liz Filmer
05 Aug 2022

 US basketball star Brittney Griner, 31, was this week sentenced to nine years on drug charges by the Russian court. The double Olympic winner has admitted to possessing cannabis oil but declared to the court that the incident was an "honest mistake". 

The Moscow court convicted her on charges of smuggling and possessing narcotics, and she has been handed a nine-and-a-half-year jail term. At the verdict on Thursday, the presiding judge took into account that the American athlete had already served considerable time in detention whilst waiting for trial.

Maria Blagovolina, Griner's defence lawyer, commented following the verdict that the star athlete was "very upset and very stressed. She can hardly talk. When we saw her on Tuesday, we told her, 'See you on Thursday'. She said, 'See you on doomsday,' and it appears she was right." The defence team are set to launch an appeal against the verdict.

Griner, considered one of the best players in the world, was detained in February at an airport near Moscow when officials found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her case. 

She had travelled to Russia to play on the "club basketball" circuit whilst it was the US off-season. Not long after Griners' arrest, Russia invaded Ukraine, and her case became the pinnacle of high-profile diplomatic talks between Russia and the USA.

US President Joe Biden has called the situation's outcome "unacceptable". US Secretary of State Antony Blinken added: "Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone travelling, working, and living abroad."

It is vague how long Griner will spend behind bars. It has been confirmed that The US and Russia have already discussed a potential prisoner swap involving the basketball star. US media reports have suggested that imprisoned arms trafficker Viktor Bout - also known as the "Merchant of Death" - could be transferred from the US to his homeland Russia as part of the deal.

After the shock sentencing, White House national security spokesman John Kirby demanded that Russia accept the "serious proposal" offered by the US for the release and return of Griner and fellow detained US citizen Paul Whelan. "It's a serious proposal. We urge them to accept it. They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it," Mr Kirby said.

Following the closing arguments in court, Griner made a plea "I made an honest mistake, and I hope your ruling does not end my life. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime. 

During the trial, Griner also revealed that she had received neither an explanation of her rights nor access to a lawyer in the first hours of her detention and that she could only communicate via a translation app on her phone.

Russia Strict Cannabis Laws

It's illegal to sell, grow or possess cannabis in Russia. However, the country still has the most considerable number of people imprisoned for drug offences in Europe.

Russia's government takes a tough stance on the possession or use of cannabis. Both are illegal and are punishable with a fine and a prison sentence. Possession of up to six grams is considered an administrative offence. Anything over seven grams is classed as a criminal offence. 

However, there have been reports of people arrested for cannabis possession, where the authorities have exaggerated the amount of cannabis they were carrying.

If the individual willingly hands the cannabis over to the authorities and 'actively contributes to the uncovering and suppression of drugs-related activities, he may avoid being given any penalties.

Overall, possessing or using cannabis in Russia is a risky practice. For offenders, the acquittal rate is 0.1%, with most being sentenced to three years in prison. Nearly half of the 102,217 guilty verdicts in 2017 were for those convicted of cannabis or other soft drugs-related offences.

Despite this, there are still many drug users in the country. It's estimated that they number between 7.3 and 8.5 million in total.



Liz Filmer