Last Thursday, WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a nine year sentencing in Russia for drug smuggling cannabis vaporizers, and is now safe on American soil after landing at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. Her release however, has been met with countless criticism. Her release from Russia was at the cost of releasing of Viktor Bout , a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” from the United States.
A Complicated Prisoner Swap for the United States
Without a doubt, the prisoner swap between Griner and Bout is heavily imbalanced. However, U.S. Special Presidential Envor for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens reports that the deal was not as easy as it may have seemed. Just hours after Carstens landed in Texas with Griner, he received a call from Paul Whelan, a former Marine and current American prisoner in Russia who was sentenced for espionage. Carstens explained to Whelan that “we have not forgotten about you,” and that the trade was “one or nothing.”
Brittney Griner’s Arrest in Russia
The Phoenix Mercury basketball player was arrested in February while returning to her Russian Basketball team. Her arrest was a result of bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oils into the country. After being sentenced for nine years, her release had marked her 294th day in custody. During her stay, she had been given the maximum sentencing, was arrested prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and had been moved to multiple facilities.
Other American Prisoners in Russia
Among Griner are a handful of Americans who are also in Russian prisons. As previously mentioned, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, had been arrested in Russia for espionage since 2018. Whelan’s family believes he was falsely accused as a means of creating a bargaining chip for Russia. Whether or not Whelan was wrongfully detained does not deny the fact that he was left out of Griner’s prisoner swap.
Other U.S. citizens include Marc Fogel, a 61 year old history teacher from Pennsylvania who was imprisoned in Russia in 2021 for possessing half an ounce of dried cannabis flower. He was also charged for drug trafficking charges, and given a 14 year sentencing.
Prisoners in the United States are currently facing harsher sentences for related offenses
Since Griner’s arrest, critics argue that her sentencing had been unjust and grounds for being categorized as a hostage. That being said, some people in the United States still face life in prison for non-violent cannabis charges. In one such case, Allen Russell, a 38-year-old in Mississippi, was sentenced in 2019 to life in prison for possessing 1.5 ounces of marijuana.
Controversy over Griner’s Release and the Biden Administration
Since Griner’s release, many argue that the Biden Administration had poorly handled the prisoner swap, suggesting that other prisoners in Russia were of equal or more value to the United States. Regardless of which prisoner was traded back into the country, the fact that tens of thousands of people are imprisoned in the United States for cannabis related offenses still remain.
It is a complete disservice to those behind bars for cannabis related offenses in the United States while Brittney Griner is freed by the U.S. government for similar offenses in a country beyond their jurisdiction.
Now, Griner is committed to drawing more attention to the other Americans currently detained in other countries including Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel.