WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, one of the league’s more prominent lesbian players, has been detained in Russia on drug charges after customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage.
The Russian Federal Customs Service claimed authorities had found the contraband in an American basketball player’s luggage during a pre-flight screening at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. Hash oil is a marijuana concentrate with a large concentration of THC, the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient, and is often sold in cartridges used in vape pens.
The Customs Service also released a video of a traveler who looked like Griner going through airport security, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from a traveler’s bag, to justify its actions.
The screening occurred in February, according to the Customs Service, raising the possibility that the player had been in custody for at least several days prior to media learning of the incident.
The Customs Service did not release the player’s name, but Russian and American news outlets quickly identified the player as Griner, the 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury center who was once the number-one overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told The New York Timesin a statement,”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 WNBA and NBA.”
The Customs Service said that a criminal case has been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years in Russia.
On January 23, the U.S. State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia, warning American citizens against traveling to the country because of the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”
Another “do not travel” advisory was issued Saturday, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nine days earlier, as well as the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials,” particularly in light of the United States’ denunciations of the invasion.
Unfortunately for Griner, that means she likely becomes a pawn in a much larger conflict between Russia and the West.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told the Times that while he doesn’t know the circumstances of Griner’s detention, her arrest should serve as a “wake-up call” to Americans in Russia to “get out” lest they find themselves unable to return to the United States.
Like many other WNBA players, Griner has competed in Russia during the off-season due to more lucrative salaries — potentially millions for some top-level players, compared to the league’s $228,094 maximum salary — offered to women’s basketball athletes abroad. Griner has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) compared Griner’s detention to that of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges of assaulting and endangering the lives of two police officers — charges his family and supporters claim are fraudulent and politically-motivated.
Earlier that same year, another former Marine, Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges for allegedly making contact with several low-ranking members of the Russian military, sparking the suspicion of Russian authorities.
On Sunday, in remarks at a joint news conference with Moldova President Maia Sandu, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States will “provide every possible assistance” to citizens who are being held in foreign countries while reiterating the department’s “do not travel” advisory.
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia,” Blinken said, also invoking the “unjust” detentions of Reed and Whelan in response to a reporter’s question on Griner. “We have an embassy team that’s working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia. We’re doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, posted a photo of the couple on Instagram, thanking those who had sent messages of support and encouragement while also asking for privacy for members of their family during this difficult time.
“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia. Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life,” Cherelle Griner wrote.
She followed that post up with another photo of Griner with her extended family. “We love you babe! People say ‘Stay busy.’ Yet, there’s not a task in this world that could keep any of us from wondering if you are safe. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by without hearing from you. I miss your voice. I miss your presence. You’re our person! There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family.”
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