When WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February for carrying hashish oil, as many as 30,000 people were in prison in America for simple marijuana possession. By the time she was released on December 8 as part of a prisoner swap that sent arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia, President Joe Biden had pardoned “thousands” who had been convicted of the same crime at the federal level. The exonerations were meant to correct our government’s “failed approach” to criminalizing cannabis, he said, but they also helped the Biden administration save face: Russia had invaded Ukraine a week after Griner’s arrest, cementing its status as a global villain, and its decision to prosecute her was seen as an extension of this villainy — even as the country lobbying for her release was persecuting thousands of people for the same offense. But if Biden was trying to wash America’s hands, Griner got a face full of dirt. Throughout her detention, right-wing media figures blasted her as an anti-American ingrate because in the summer of 2020 she’d voiced opposition to playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before her team’s games. Now “she expects that country to come in full bore to take care of her,” said Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro in August. The criticism ramped up after Griner’s release with some people proclaiming that Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, should’ve been exchanged for Bout instead. Rather than interrogating whether the U.S. and Russia should be imprisoning people for minor crimes at all, Americans were subjected to an argument about which prisoner deserved to suffer more.
This mentality reflected an ethos that has helped make the U.S. and (to a lesser degree) Russia world leaders in incarceration, accounting for almost 3 million total prisoners between them. Each has built its justice system on punishment unmoored from any clear standard of harm. Yet Griner’s story is being read as a straightforward parable of Russian iniquity rather than as the indictment of Russo-American criminal policy and political gamesmanship that it is.
Griner’s ordeal was harrowing. A six-foot-nine phenom and one of fewer than ten WNBA players to dunk during a game, the Texas native was nine years into a celebrated career with the Phoenix Mercury before her arrest. She had been a league champion once, a scoring leader twice, and an all-star six times, but the WNBA’s famously skewed revenue-sharing agreement — until 2021, its players received roughly a 20 percent share compared to 50 percent in the men’s league — had compelled her to play in Russia during the off-season. Back in Arizona, she’d been prescribed cannabis to manage her chronic pain, and she maintained — over the period when she was detained, charged, and pleaded guilty to passing through Russia with less than a gram of her medication — that she had brought the hash-oil cartridges by mistake. Russian authorities were not moved: After a jury convicted her of drug trafficking in August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in one of the country’s notorious penal colonies — successors to the Stalin-era Gulags immortalized in the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.