Brittney Griner’s Sentencing in Russian Trial

Foreign Policy Brief #154 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | November 10, 2022

Header photo taken from: AFP / Getty Images




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From left to right: Marc Fogel, Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

Photo taken from: Getty Images

Policy Summary

WNBA star Britney Griner is one of several American citizens wrongfully detained in Russia. Her arrest took place within about one week of the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. She was arrested on trumped up charges of ‘drug smuggling’ while traveling to Russia to play on a team during the WNBA off-season. She was convicted of drug smuggling, due to her carrying a small amount of cannabis oil into Russia, which she was prescribed by her doctor in the United States.

Russia over the summer conducted a trial, and found her guilty of drug smuggling and recentlysentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. She is not the only American citizen wrongfully imprisoned in Russia though; Paul Whelan is an American detained on espionage charges; and Mark Fogel is another American citizen who was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for carrying cannabis into Russia with a prescription from his doctor, very similar to Britney Griner.

Policy Analysis

Russia is well-known for its ‘zero tolerance policy’ toward illicit drugs, which is how the Russian government views cannabis. However, Russia is also infamous for its well-documented alcoholism rates and addiction problems. 

So, it may seem a little disingenuous for Russia to be claiming a ‘zero tolerance policy’ towards illicit drugs and addictive behaviors – none of which Griner has exhibited by an American standard where cannabis use is legalized in many states. She was prescribed the cannabis oil by a licensed physician.

Griner’s sentencing to nine years in a penal colony is extremely alarming. First off, the location of the penal colony is unknown, as of yet. The penal colonies that are in use in Russia are often on the sites of former gulags; former Russian prison work camps that were used, in the height of the Soviet Union’s reign, to jail political opposition. 

The gulags, and now these penal colonies, were, and are, well-known for their horrific and inhumane conditions. Prisoners are often working outside doing manual labor (akin to forced labor or enslavement); they have poor hygiene conditions and lack  health care services.

PBS Newshour interviewed Julia Ioffe, a distinguished Russian-American journalist, recently and she explained that these penal colonies are often the most common sentence for women, especially foreigners, who are found guilty on drug charges. Ioffe also stated that Griner was going to be “guilty no matter what” in the current state of Russian affairs. 

Ioffe also made the point that she worries for Griner’s safety in these penal colonies as these camps are already intensely political amongst the prisoners and the fact that Griner does not speak Russian will be a major hindrance to her ability to remain safe. Ioffe also pointed out that these penal colonies are rife with sexual violence towards the prisoners from the guard staff.

Brittney Griner had a doctor’s note for cannabis use, her lawyer told Russian court, shortly before the verdict was announced.

Photo taken from: Marijuana Moment

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The White House is still trying to discuss with Moscow the release of Griner, and the other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia; although, these talks have been not progressing well. There were rumors regarding a potential prisoner exchange between the two countries as the United States has jailed Viktor Bout, a former international arms dealer. However, these discussions, according to Julia Ioffe have been difficult as Moscow has increased their demands on the United States by adding more prisoners that they would like sent back to Russia; one example given by Ioffe was the release of a former FSB officer who is imprisoned in Germany for assassinating a person in a park.

 These types of demands are impossible for the United States to negotiate with as President Biden cannot control, nor interfere, with the legal proceedings of the German government. As long as these types of demands are made by the Russians, the likelihood of a prisoner exchange for Griner seems to diminish.

The jailing of Griner and others took place just before the start of the Russian war in Ukraine. Russia has viewed the war in Ukraine almost as a proxy-war against the United States, as the US has been a large supporter of Ukraine militarily and financially through this conflict. 


The imprisonment of Griner is a part of this political puzzle and a way for the Russian government to inflict some harm and damage to the United States government.  President Putin and his allies are essentially kidnapping American citizens for political reasons.

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