Olympian & WNBA Athlete Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for possessing vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Her detention could be used by Russia to gain leverage in the political and economic standoff with Washington over the Ukraine invasion.

Brittney Griner

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Who is Brittney Griner?

Brittney Griner, is a 31-year-old African-American professional basketball player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury team. She played college basketball for the Baylor Lady in Waco, Texas and was the only NCAA player to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots. In 2012, she was named the AP Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. 

Griner was dubbed the nation’s #1 high school women’s basketball team by Rivals.com and was also selected to the 2009 Phoenix Mercury All-American basket. In 2012, she got the Best Female Athlete ESPY Award. She was also on the United States women’s Olympics team in 2016, leading them to victory at the Rio Olympics. In 2013, Griner signed an endorsement deal with Nike, making this the first time the company had signed such a deal with an openly gay athlete. In June 2021, Griner was named to the United States women’s national team for the 2020 Olympics, where she won the second gold medal.

Griner played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years during the American league’s off-season – a common practice for US athletes.

Griner Detained For Alleged Hashish Possession

On Saturday, March 5th, Russian officials announced they had detained an American basketball player and Olympic gold medalist, but did not identify the athlete as Griner. 

According to Russia’s Interfax News Agency, “‘As a US citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo Customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage.’”

Russian Federal Customs Service did not release the player’s name, but the Russian news agency TASS, who cited a law enforcement source, identified the player as Brittney Griner.  Russian Federal Customs Service said officials had detained the player after finding vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow.  A video was released of a traveler going through airport security, appearing to be Griner.

“The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the US citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance,” the customs service said in the statement. The screening at the airport occurred in February, according to the Customs Service, raising the possibility that Griner had been in Russian custody for at least several days.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, did not dispute reports of detention. “We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the W.N.B.A. and N.B.A.,” she said.

The Customs Service said a criminal case had been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence upwards of 10 years in prison in Russia. Hashish oil, or hash oil, is a marijuana concentrate that has high concentrations of the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC. While its consumption comes in multiple ways, the most common usage is being sold in cartridges that are used in vape pens. Interfax, quoting the Customs Service, said a criminal case has been opened against Griner. 

This detention of a high-profile American athlete is occurring as Russia enters its second week of invasion against Ukraine, media suppression from within Russia, and as Putin is cracking down on internal dissent not seen since the Soviet Communist Party.  In further escalation of the conflict, President Putin issued a series of threats against the Ukraine and Western powers on March 5th, stating that the sanctions being introduced on Russia are the “equivalent of a declaration of war.” 

Within the past years, US officials accused Russia of detaining and sentencing American citizens on trumped-up charges, with several instances of this being proven true within the past two years, according to The NYTimes. Detaining a high-profile American such as Griner could be seen as an effort by Russia as a way to gain leverage in the political and economic standoff with Washington over the Ukraine invasion. 

Griner nor her attorneys have issued a statement to the charges but her agent Colas said in her statement that Griner’s “mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”

The W.N.B.A. has also lent support to Griner and stated that their “main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”

Griner was reportedly the only W.N.B.A player who had not made it out of Russia before the Ukraine conflict according to a league spokesperson.

It’s still unclear whether Russia might have targeted Griner for being an American or saw her detention as a powerful ransom/bargaining tool with Washington but one Democratic member of Congress saw the incident that way on Saturday.

“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed,” the lawmaker, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, tweeted. “US citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor, and other Americans must be safely returned.”