Brittney Griner released from Russian detention in prisoner swap

Published on December 8, 2022 · Last updated January 18, 2023
US Olympian Brittney Griner (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)
US Olympian Brittney Griner (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

After nearly 10 months in Russian custody for allegedly “smuggling” a THC vape pen, WNBA player Brittney Griner has been released in a 1-for-1 prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

President Biden announced her release Thursday morning, saying: “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

Griner expected in the US within 24 hours

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout had been flown home.

Griner is expected to be back in the U.S. within 24 hours, Biden said. U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling, but declined to go into specifics citing privacy concerns.

All of this over a vape cartridge

The WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist, who plays basketball in Russia in the US offseason to supplement her income, was detained at the Moscow airport in February when cannabis oil vape cartridges were found in her luggage.

Cannabis in all forms is illegal in Russia, and Griner was sentenced to nine years imprisonment in August. Her appeal in October was denied, and Griner has spent the last few weeks in a Russian penal colony

The trauma caused by nonsense drug laws

While we can rejoice that her wrongful conviction has finally been overturned and her nine-year sentence wiped, this traumatic experience will likely haunt her for the rest of her life.

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It’s also ludicrous to conflate Griner’s offense with that of Bout, a middle-aged former Soviet officer and illegal arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill Americans and smuggling missiles to support terrorist organizations. His nickname was the “Merchant of Death.”

Griner is unfortunately not alone as a Black woman athlete facing disproportionate punishment for a cannabis-related offense. Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified from the Olympic trials last year for a positive cannabis test, despite cannabis having no performance-enhancing properties.

Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, speaks after President Joe Biden announced Brittney Griner’s release in a prisoner swap with Russia, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

There’s also the hypocrisy that Biden would push so hard for Griner’s release, yet continue to detain hundreds of thousands of Americans per year on nonviolent cannabis charges.

We wish the Griners the best as they reunite and try to move past this nearly yearlong nightmare, and hope the Biden administration realizes that no American citizen should be locked up for weed. 

Editor’s note: Material from the Associated Press was incorporated into this report.

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Amelia Williams
Amelia Williams
New York-based freelance cannabis journalist Amelia Williams is a graduate of San Francisco State University's journalism program, and a former budtender. Williams has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle's GreenState, MG Magazine, Culture Magazine, and Cannabis Now, Kirkus Reviews, and The Bold Italic.
View Amelia Williams's articles
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