Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who remains detained in Russia since February on drug smuggling charges, insists that she had no intent to break Russian law or indeed bring anything A lawyer for the WNBA star at her drug possession trial in Russia gave the court a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending she use medical cannabis to treat pain. Medical marijuana is not legal in Russia. Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner has plenty of time to think about gender inequality in the NBA as she sits in a cold Russian jail cell.
Brittney Griner: I don’t understand how cannabis oil ended up in my bags
B rittney Griner, the WNBA star who remains detained in Russia since February on drug smuggling charges, insists that she had no intent to break Russian law or indeed bring anything into the country.
The basketball player’s legal team are hoping for leniency from the Russian legal system, arguing that Griner was still recovering from COVID-19 and “stress packing” ahead of going to Russia.
Griner herself says she did not expect to see the cannabis oil found in her luggage and had not intended to pack it, saying it ended up in there by accident.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bags,” Griner said at a hearing in Khimki.
“I didn’t have any intent to use or keep in my possession any substance that is prohibited in Russia.
“With them being accidentally in my bags, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”
As part of her defence, Griner and her legal team are also focussing on how much she enjoys going to Russia and how she considers it her second home.
She also claims she had been advised against travelling to Russia in the US, but she wanted to uphold her commitment to her team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, who she has represented during the WNBA off-season since 2014.
Brittney Griner had a doctor’s note for cannabis use, her lawyer tells Russian court
WNBA star Brittney Griner speaks with her lawyers in the courtroom near Moscow on Friday.
KHIMKI, Russia — A lawyer for WNBA star Brittney Griner at her drug possession trial in Russia on Friday gave the court a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending she use medical cannabis to treat pain.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and standout for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of transporting drugs.
Members of Brittney Griner’s Russian team defend her character, on and off the court
In court last week, Griner pleaded guilty and acknowledged possessing the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and said they were in her luggage because she packed hastily in her return to Russia to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.
In Russia’s judicial system, admitting guilt doesn’t automatically end a trial. Since that plea, her court sessions have focused on in-person and written testimony to her good character and athletic prowess.
Griner wore a Nirvana T-shirt as she sat inside the defendant’s cage that is customary in Russian courtrooms. At one point, she held up a photo of fellow WNBA players wearing her name and No. 42 on their uniforms in tribute during part of Sunday’s All-Star Game in Chicago.
“The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis,” said her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina. “The permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health.”
Medical marijuana is not legal in Russia.
The defense on Friday also submitted tests she underwent as part of an anti-doping check, which didn’t detect any prohibited substances in her system.
The next hearing of Griner’s case was scheduled for July 26.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they are doing all they could to win her release, as well as that of other Americans the U.S. considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan who is serving 16 years on an espionage conviction.
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Washington may have little leverage with Moscow, though, because of strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.
“In the hearings yesterday and today what became very clear is the tremendous amount of respect and admiration both in the United States and here in Russia where Miss Griner has been playing basketball for seven years, not only for her professional achievements but for her character and integrity,” U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood said outside the courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where the airport is located.
The director and team captain of UMMC Ektaerinburg testified on her behalf on Thursday.
Russian media have speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy in the seriousness of their cases could make such a trade unpalatable to Washington. Others have suggested that Griner could be traded along with Whelan, who is serving 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction that the U.S. has described as a setup.
The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator. The classification has irritated Russia.
As calls grow to free Brittney Griner, Biden says he’s spoken with her wife
Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, has noted that until her trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”
Ryabkov warned that U.S. criticism, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”
Griner’s detention has been authorized through Dec. 20, suggesting the trial could last months. Griner’s lawyers, however, said they expect it to conclude around the beginning of August.
Moscow Pot Bust of Phoenix Mercury Star Raises Awkward Questions
It looks like the dab pens in basketball icon Brittney Griner’s duffel bag might have slipped her mind somewhere between Sky Harbor and Moscow’s main international airport, where she was arrested on drug smuggling charges three weeks ago.
Instead of toking up at the Valley’s lofty rooftop bars like Floor 13 and Orange Sky, the Phoenix Mercury star is accused of sneaking her cannabis cartridges up 40,000 feet in a carry-on bag last month. She could face up to 10 years in prison, according to Russian authorities.
The Federal Customs Service of Russia, which classified the cannabis stash as a “significant amount,” said Griner will be detained while Russian law enforcement officials continue to investigate.
Her case highlights conspicuous disparities between the U.S. and Russian legal systems, but also raises less obvious questions about gender fairness in basketball. The world’s biggest league treats men and women differently when it comes to their personal stash.
Despite more than 16,000 signatures on a Change.org petition to secure Griner’s swift and safe return to Arizona, U.S. lawmakers say it will be “very difficult” to liberate the basketball star from her jail cell in Russia.
Drug-sniffing dogs flagged Griner on the New York-to-Moscow leg of the route to her seasonal home in Russia, where she has played for the EuroLeague’s UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2015.
Griner’s team is alone atop the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League standings entering the postseason starting on Tuesday. The WNBA season will resume in Phoenix in May and lasts until mid-August.
Griner hopes to be a starter on the Mercury’s 2022 squad when she returns to Phoenix.
But she might not.
The U.S. State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia on Saturday as the Kremlin continues to rain missiles down on Ukraine. The warning cited “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” as a reason for Americans to depart the country immediately.
That led U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to pledge “every possible assistance” on Monday to Americans detained in Russia.
“Whenever a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services,” he said.
But Griner’s livelihood is in Russia. And she tried to re-enter the country before the war was declared.
Like many players in the WNBA and G League, the NBA’s minor league organization, Griner plays basketball overseas during the American offseason to make more money.
The two-time WNBA leading scorer and center has earned as much as $1.5 million for a season in Russia compared to a $215,000 base salary stateside last season.
In comparison, the NBA’s best center, Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets, makes close to $30 million per year. The NBA’s men play almost three times as many games in a season.
It’s more than money tipping the scales, though.
Since Prop 207 passed in 2020, Arizonans have smoked blunts, taken dabs, popped edibles, and applied pain-relieving THC balms without much worry.
For the Mercury, however, inequality is still alive and well, and not just in players’ pay packets.
The latest collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and its players, which is in effect until 2027, still prohibits the use of marijuana, and players who test positive “shall immediately be dismissed and disqualified.”
But their male counterparts on the Phoenix Suns can, if they want, toke up all season without formal sanction.
The National Basketball Players Association, representing only men, convinced the league to do away with random weed tests and to “focus its random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in October.
NBA players in a coronavirus-free “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 2020 were carefree in describing the massive quantities of marijuana they would need to “survive.” Meanwhile, WNBA players like Griner quarantined close by in the Tampa Bay area, but no such claims emerged.
Although marijuana is legal in Arizona, it remains illicit in Russia and in the U.S. at the federal level. The federal government regulates all air travel.
Because Griner is a veteran professional athlete who has spent years in Russia and travels by plane frequently, unsubstantiated theories have spread across on social media that the weed was planted in her bag.
Attorney and sports TV personality Adrienne Lawrence theorized on Twitter that the drugs were planted on Griner, in a widely-circulated rumor.
“I won’t take a police report from Team Putin at face value — especially a report about ‘finding’ drugs on a Black person,” Lawrence said. “We’re only hearing about it now because Putin wanted us to.”
The whole situation conjures images of Sha’Carri Richardson, a Texas native like Griner, who was a medal favorite for the 100-meter dash before she tested positive for cannabis. She was banned from competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, sparking outrage.
Outrage has similarly followed Griner, who lives in South Mountain Village and has played in the Valley all of her professional career.
The Phoenix Mercury selected the 6-foot-9 center with the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. She was red-hot entering the draft after leading the Baylor University Lady Bears in 2012 to the first 40-0 campaign in women’s college hoops, capped by an NCAA women’s title.
Griner later won two Olympic gold medals on the U.S. team, and a WNBA championship with Phoenix in 2014, her second season in the league. She is a seven-time WNBA All-Star.
“We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home,” the Mercury said in a statement.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.
Over time, Griner’s relationship with the WNBA soured.
She reported feeling undervalued and under appreciated by the WNBA in 2019 after she was suspended for three games for tangling with Kristine Anigwe of the Dallas Wings.
Four years earlier, the league slapped her with what was then the longest suspension in its two-decade history following Griner’s domestic violence arrest in Goodyear. She was booked into Maricopa County Jail in downtown Phoenix and ended up pleading guilty after her now-ex-wife, WNBA standout Glory Johnson, lodged assault charges against her. Griner and Johnson each received seven-game suspensions after the incident.
Johnson played three seasons with the Tulsa Shock before the team relocated to Dallas and rebranded as the Wings. After four seasons with Dallas, she played for the Atlanta Dream in 2020.
Despite tensions, the WNBA is anxious to see one of its star players return home to Phoenix.
“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States,” the league said in a statement.
There is hope for the future of destigmatizing weed in the WNBA.
Longtime Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird is the face of cannabis purveyor Mendi , owned by fellow women’s sports trailblazer Megan Rapinoe, a star professional soccer player.
Griner has now become another face of cannabis in women’s sports, too.
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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.