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Yesterday I was at dinner with some peers discussing the Brittney Griner situation and someone said, “The U.S. wants Russia to free her but what about all of the prisoners we’re holding for petty drug charges?”. Well damn, sis has a point!
Admittedly – and probably insensitively – when I learned that WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for allegedly having vape cartridges in her luggage that contained hashish oil, I said, “Us Americans are going to have to learn the hard way that we don’t have the same freedoms in other countries that we do here”. Because besides seeing how other countries penalize people for the pettiest crimes in Locked Up Abroad, whole international wars have erupted over different political ideologies. And so not only is our sense of “democracy” not celebrated, it’s not tolerated everywhere, either.
First things first, at this point Brittney Griner – like other Americans before and detained with her – is a prisoner of war. And not the war between Russia and Ukraine–she’s a victim of the ongoing and everlasting beef between the United States and Russia.
Brittney Griner case
If you’ve been asleep under a rock, you may be wondering who Brittney Griner is and what she was doing over there in the first place. Well, Brittney Griner is a U.S. Olympic gold medalist and one of the best basketball players in the WNBA, appearing in the league’s all-star games six times throughout her career. In 2014 she won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury. In 2021, she almost led the Phoenix Mercury to another league championship, but those dreams were crushed by the Chicago Sky.
Brittney was basically in Russia because of gender inequality.
Despite being one of the best, most recognized players and highly accomplished players in the WNBA, her average annual salary was only a little over $200k. Her three-year contract with the Mercury locks her in at $664k and some change which is about $300k less than what the worst NBA players make. So Griner – like other players – went to Russia to play basketball in the off-season to make more money.
Having been detained since February 2022, there have been national calls to release and bring her home but Russia isn’t hearing it. On Independence Day, Griner wrote a letter to President Biden expressing fear that she might be detained there forever. Days later, she pleaded guilty to possession and drug smuggling in early July and could be facing 10 years in prison.
What about U.S. prisoners facing minor drug charges?
The United States is officially calling the detainment of Brittney Griner a wrongful detention but couldn’t the same apply to prisoners in our country, too?
The 50 year “War on Drugs” alone resulted in the imprisonment of millions of Black people, causing generational and devastating destabilization of our communities and families. Former President Barack Obama kicked off the clemency crusade in its aftermath, freeing 1,324 people imprisoned for petty drug offenses.
President Biden has also pardoned and commuted the sentences of some people convicted with marijuana charges, but there’s much more to be done in policy and practice.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one in five people in the United States are currently locked up for a drug offense. Forbes reports that 40,000 of those cases are marijuana charges even though cannabis is now legally sold in multiple states throughout the country.
And finally, all 50 states and Washington D.C. still carry mandatory minimum laws for drug possession.
Now, we don’t know what people’s reasons were for selling or using marijuana. But we can speculate that they sold it to make more money (the same reason Brittney Griner went to Russia) and used it recreationally or habitually. Those offenses should be examined on a case by case basis, not by blanket laws influenced by racism and privilege.
All in all, we have to do more of practicing what we’re preaching. Yes, there are small steps to correct injustices of the past, but before we police other countries on their policies, we have to get ours together. Free Brittney Griner and everyone else who’s in prisons and jails for petty drugs crimes.