By Walt Rubel
LAS CRUCES — Our nation’s efforts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian prison demonstrate how conflicted we are on the enforcement of cannabis laws. It was announced recently that the United States has agreed to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, better known as “the merchant of death,” in exchange for Griner and retired US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian prison since 2020, serving a 16-year sentence on trumped-up espionage charges. Russia has rejected that offer, demanding that we add Vadim Krasikov, a convicted murderer being held in Germany, to the deal.
Griner, who plays for professional basketball leagues in both the US and Russia, was arrested in February when agents at the Moscow airport found vape cartridges containing cannabis oils in her luggage. She has never claimed that the drugs were planted on her.
Griner explained that she is a legal medical marijuana user in Arizona, where she plays for the Phoenix Mercury. She said she did not intend to bring the drugs with her, but packed them by mistake because she was rushed.
The US government has ruled that Griner is being “wrongfully detained,” which is a bit odd given that she can be legally detained for the exact same offense in 12 states where medical marijuana usage is still illegal.
Griner is able to use medicinal cannabis for home games in Phoenix, but not when the team goes on the road to play against the Indiana Fever, Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings, Houston Comets or Charlotte Sting. Any attempt to bring cannabis into those states would risk the same arrest that she suffered in the Moscow airport. Would the US government consider that to be wrongful?
Even in states like New Mexico that have legalized cannabis for both medical and nonmedical use, travelers passing through Border Patrol checkpoints are still at risk of being detained.
According to a 2020 story by Forbes, there are an estimated 40,000 Americans being held in US prisons and jails for marijuana convictions. And, there are hundreds of thousands of former inmates with marijuana convictions on their record, making it much harder to find a job.
A study by the ACLU found that more than half of all drug arrests in the US are for marijuana. There were 8.2 million marijuana arrests in the US between 2001 and 2010. Almost all of them (88 percent) were for marijuana only.
Though the State Department has stopped keeping track, it is estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 US citizens a year are taken into custody in foreign countries, many of them on drug charges. Of course, only one averaged 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.
Griner has become a pawn in a much larger and more dangerous game, as relations between the US and Russia are at their lowest point since the Cold War. I fear that public appeals for her release will only increase her value in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, who clearly thinks he can now get more than just Bout.
Advocates for Griner say there is a double standard, and a male player like LeBron James would have been released by now. There is a double standard. If Griner were an accountant, and not a star athlete, our government would not be offering an international arms merchant with American blood on his hands for her release.
Griner’s arrest has brought renewed attention to the plight of other Americans who are being wrongfully detained. We need to continue working to bring all of them home.
Walter Rubel is the former opinion page editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News who now writes for the Silver City Daily Press. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.