Marijuana

Brittney Griner Sentenced to Nine Years for Drug Smuggling

Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.
Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Lorie Shaull
Brittney Griner was stone-faced inside her tiny cell on Thursday as she learned how long she’ll be under the Kremlin's lock and key if American and Russian diplomats can’t broker a deal for her release.

A Russian judge sentenced Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, to nine years in prison, capping a month-long trial that ended Thursday. The sentence was just a few months short of the maximum she faced. Griner was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million rubles, worth roughly $16,300.

Griner pleaded guilty last month to charges of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent.

Russian customs officials found vape cartridges totaling 0.7 grams of THC in Griner’s luggage in February and she was arrested. Prosecutors said that the quantity was enough to meet the “significant amount” threshold under Russian law, despite Griner’s stash weighing less than a raisin or a paper clip.

Drug-sniffing dogs flagged Griner on the New York-to-Moscow leg of the route to her seasonal home in Russia, where the 31-year-old has played for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA offseason since 2015.

Russia is among the nations with the harshest penalties for carrying marijuana into the country.

Griner had almost no reaction to the widely expected verdict when an interpreter quietly translated the judge’s decision from Russian to English. In her final utterances to the judge on Thursday, she apologized to her family, friends, and Russian teammates for "the embarrassment I brought on them."

“I never meant to hurt anybody," Griner said. "I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake.”

Griner testified earlier this year that she absent-mindedly placed weed cartridges into her luggage while “stress-packing” for her trip to Russia. Her lawyers argued that an Arizona doctor had prescribed the drug to Griner to help deal with chronic pain from athletic injuries.

Kremlin prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko argued that Griner trafficked the cannabis oil on purpose.

Griner has a right to appeal the sentence under Russian law.

Her attorneys, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, called her sentence “absolutely unreasonable” in a statement and promised to “certainly file an appeal.”

“The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” the statement read. “This contradicts the existing legal practice.”

Also Thursday, the Phoenix Mercury called Griner's sentence "a sobering milestone" in the months-long case.

"While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today's verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG," the WNBA team tweeted.
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Viktor Bout is extradited to the United States aboard a Drug Enforcement Administration plane on November 16, 2010.
Drug Enforcement Administration

'It's Unacceptable'

After the sentence, the Biden administration released a statement again demanding her release.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” the statement read. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”

Biden is under tremendous domestic pressure to bring Griner stateside. Hundreds of fans rallied at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix in July demanding her release.

Last week, the Biden administration offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois for conspiring to help terrorists kill Americans, as part of a potential compromise that would see the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine accused of espionage. But Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t facing much urgency to free Bout, who will be released in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Bout is nicknamed “Merchant of Death,” and he inspired Nicolas Cage’s 2005 wartime drama Lord of War.

Russian authorities indicated they weren’t wooed by the 2-for-1 special. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Russia’s response to the American government’s proposed deal was in “bad faith,” citing a counteroffer that American officials considered a joke. She did not elaborate.

Russian officials asked Washington to consummate negotiations through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information.”
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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.
Contact: Elias Weiss