WNBA Star Brittney Griner Was detained by Russian authorities on February 17 for marijuana possession. According to Griner, who pleaded guilty to the charges against her in court on July 7, she accidentally packed vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage, which was subsequently detected by airport customs officers as she was entering Russia.
During her off-season, as many WNBA players do, Griner had intended to play basketball with the Russian Premier League. After her arrest, Americans across the country, from everyday citizens to celebrities and top politicians, expressed outrage at Griner’s detainment, which began just a few days prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It seems very clear that Russia is using Griner as a political pawn, causing many of Griner’s supporters to question why the United States government has not taken more action as of yet.
Griner could face up to 10 years in Russian prison now that she has entered a guilty plea. Considering her only alleged offense was to accidentally bring a small amount of hashish oil into the country, the penalty seems absurdly overblown to a great number of Americans, and this isn’t just because Griner is a much-beloved basketball star. According to a November 2022 Gallup poll, 68% of Americans want cannabis to be legalized. And even more Americans (70%) support expunging past marijuana-related convictions for non-violent offenders, according to NORML.
Sadly, as many individuals who have spoken up in support of Griner have rightly noted, had Griner been caught with hashish oil in certain areas of the United States, she could actually be facing similar charges right here in her own country, particularly given that (as a queer person of color) she is belongs to marginalized communities that face higher levels of incarceration for cannabis-related crimes than other groups do.
Support for Cannabis Legalization Has Increased Over Time in America
Gallup has been tracking support for cannabis legalization for decades, with dramatic increases in support noted in the first two decades of the 21st century. Per Gallup’s data, a majority of Americans began supporting marijuana legalization beginning in 2013. As one might expect, a majority of Democrats (83%) and Independents (71%) support legalization, but interestingly, half of all Republicans (50%) are in favor of legalization as well.
While many Americans view the Russian cannabis laws that Griner allegedly violated to be harsh and outdated, the reality is that American cannabis laws (and the penalties for violating them) aren’t all that different. Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level, a class of drugs that includes LSD, ecstasy, and heroin. Clearly, no valid comparison can be made between marijuana and other Schedule 1 drugs that have a high potential for abuse and no medical value.
Had Brittney Griner gone through U.S. customs with hashish oil, she could be facing a prison sentence right here in America. And given the fact that marijuana laws have often been selectively enforced against people of color, it’s entirely possible that Griner’s sentence could have been comparable to the potential sentence she is currently faced with in Russia.
It’s still unclear what effect Griner’s detention could have on cannabis laws here in the United States. But for politicians to decry the Russian government’s detainment of Griner while failing to do anything about our own draconian cannabis laws reeks of hypocrisy. It is high time the U.S. government took action to stop detaining Americans, particularly Americans of color, for marijuana possession, and legalize the drug at the federal level.
As part of his plan for Black America, called “Lift Every Voice,” President Joe Biden promised to “…decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions, and end all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment.” The current administration has yet to follow through on this promise, and no cannabis policy reform has taken place. In fact, per USA Today, federal cannabis arrests actually went up from 2020 to 2021, despite the fact that federal arrest rates had been declining throughout the 2010s.
While the administration has stated that they are working to secure Griner’s release, their lack of progress on cannabis reform in the United States has caused some to question their commitment to tackling this issue. In light of Griner’s detention and possible prison sentence, it is more important than ever for supporters of marijuana legalization to push our elected officials here at home to take action on this issue and reform our archaic cannabis laws.
It will most likely take an act of Congress to marijuana to be legalized nationwide. While President Biden would likely sign a federal marijuana legalization bill if it passed both chambers of Congress, this has not happened, despite broad support for such a law.
On April 1, 2022, a bill called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (or the MORE Act) passed the House of Representatives on a bipartisan basis, 220 to 204. This law would decriminalize marijuana and remove it from the list of scheduled drugs established through the Controlled Substances Act. It would also remove criminal punishments for people who possess, distribute, or manufacture cannabis products.
Under the law, some individuals who had previously been convicted of marijuana offenses could seek expungements, and the law would also set up sentencing review hearings for federal marijuana crimes. Unfortunately, this bill stalled in the Senate. However, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act could soon be introduced in the Senate, which would end the federal prohibition of marijuana. This bill, if it is signed into law, could automatically provide expungements to individuals who were convicted of nonviolent cannabis crimes. It would also allow for resentencing in other cases.
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