U.S. officials recently escalated their push for the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Russia in February after she was allegedly caught with cannabis vape cartridges at an airport.
But while the State Department has now formally designated Griner’s case as a wrongful detention, the Russian charge itself is still consistent with the U.S.’s own federal laws prohibiting marijuana—an offense that could similarly result in a conviction and incarceration in the American athlete’s home country.
The department didn’t necessarily say that they escalated the designation because they believe a person shouldn’t be incarcerated over cannabis, but the new “wrongfully detained” classification means that the U.S. is taking the position that the legal proceeding is unjust and officials will be stepping up negotiations for her release.
“There will be no change, of course, to the fact that we are going to do everything we can to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner, to her family,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a briefing last week. “There’s only so much I can say about the process for determining whether an American is wrongfully detained. It is a deliberative process.”
Price pointed to 11 criteria that officials take into account when determining whether a given case amounts to a wrongful detention. For example, if the U.S. has reason to believe that due process is being impaired, that the person was arrested solely because they are a U.S. national or that they are innocent of the stated charges, that would warrant a wrongful detention designation.
In this case, the new designation could simply mean that U.S. officials believe Griner did not actually possess cannabis vape cartridges and is being framed for the offense.
Price said that “each case of an American detained overseas is going to be unique, and in each case, we look at the totality of circumstances in that case when it comes to arriving at such a determination.”
Still, some feel that the situation overall reflects a double standard in how the U.S. is treating a high-profile marijuana-related case in Russia while maintaining similar prohibitionist polices domestically—especially as President Joe Biden’s campaign pledges to decriminalize cannabis and grant mass clemency to those who are incarcerated on past charges go unfulfilled.
Griner’s detention is set to last until at least May 19 as Russian prosecutors work to build a case against her. While she was arrested in February, U.S. officials have been intentionally quiet about the situation until late.
Now that the case has been redesignated, as ESPN first reported, that empowers the U.S. and supporters to be more vocal in their demands for Griner’s release.
The circumstances behind the WNBA player’s case are complicated for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Russia is facing nearly global condemnation as it carries out attacks in neighboring Ukraine, leaving countless civilians and fighters dead in its push to seize control of regions of the country.
But with increased awareness of the basketball star’s cannabis detention has come increased condemnation from key officials, lawmakers and advocates.
Top Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus have said that they are “intensely engaged” in talks about Griner’s arrest and possible avenues for relief.
Griner allegedly broke Russian law because marijuana is illegal is Russia—and the country has taken a particularly strong stance against reforming cannabis policy at the international level through the United Nations. And it condemned Canada for legalizing marijuana nationwide.
The deputy of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in March that legalization efforts in the U.S. and Canada are matters “of serious concern for us,” according to a social media post from the office’s official account. “It is worrisome that several Member States of the [European Union] are considering violating their drug control obligations.”
Griner’s situation is precarious, especially in the current political climate. But there are some who are encouraged by the increased attention to the case, expressing optimism that it could open the door for relief for other Americans who are being detained in Russia for unrelated reasons—or could even increase pressure on the Biden administration to reform cannabis laws to display a greater contrast with Russian policy on the plant.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia.