Brittney Griner’s trial on cannabis possession charges continued in Russia on Friday, with the WNBA star’s attorneys telling the court that she has a doctor’s recommendation to use medical pot. Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February after customs agents reportedly found vape cartridges containing less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage as she made her way through a security checkpoint. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison.
At a hearing on Friday, her defense team submitted evidence that could elicit leniency from the court, including documentation that she has a doctor’s recommendation to use medical cannabis in the United States. The defense also submitted evidence that Griner had recently passed an anti-doping drug screening, with no prohibited substances found in her system.
“The defense today provided written evidence, including character materials, medical documents and tax returns,” Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told Reuters.
“Among the medical documents is a doctor’s note for the substance that Brittney Griner inadvertently left among her belongings when crossing the border,” she said.
Griner’s lawyers also noted that the recommendation to use cannabis medicinally had been sanctioned by the state government in Arizona, where she is the star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
“The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis,” Blagovolina added. “The permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health.”
Griner’s trial began on July 1 in a courtroom in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow where the airport is located. She pleaded guilty on July 7 to the charges she faces, although she told the court that she did not intend to commit a crime and that she had packed for her trip quickly, unaware that the vape cartridges were in her luggage. While Griner has already pleaded guilty, her trial continues as the court considers the circumstances of the alleged offense.
In a statement after Griner entered her plea, her legal team said that it was the WNBA star’s decision to plead guilty to the charges, adding that the move “sets an example of being brave.”
“She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” the attorneys said. “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
On Thursday, some of Griner’s teammates on the Russian basketball team she plays for, UMMC Ekaterinburg, addressed the court as character witnesses. Team captain Evgeniya Belyakova told the court that Griner is “the heart of our team,” according to a tweet from Moscow NPR correspondent Charles Maynes, and said that fans in Russia “adore her.”
After the hearing, Griner’s attorneys said that UMMC Ekaterinburg director Maxim Ryabkov “gave a positive description of Brittney Griner during his speech in court, noting her outstanding abilities as a player and personal contribution to strengthening the team spirit, which allowed the team to achieve the highest results in the Russian basketball premier league and in international competitions for many years.”
Griner ‘Wrongfully Detained’
The U.S. State Department has officially listed Griner as wrongfully detained and the White House has said that President Joe Biden is doing everything he can to secure her release from Russia. Media reports have speculated that the governments of the United States and Russia could eventually engineer a swap of prisoners, with the American authorities perhaps releasing Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing assistance to a terrorist organization.
After Friday’s hearing, U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood commented on the support Griner has received during her trial.
“In the hearings yesterday and today what became very clear is the tremendous amount of respect and admiration both in the United States and here in Russia where Miss Griner has been playing basketball for seven years, not only for her professional achievements but for her character and integrity,” she said outside the courthouse.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, has declined to comment on a potential prisoner swap, noting that until her trial concludes “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”
Ryabkov also warned that criticism from the United States, including Griner’s status as wrongfully detained and negative comments about the Russian court system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”
The next hearing in Griner’s trial is scheduled for July 26. Her legal team has said that they expect the trial to conclude sometime in August, although her detention has been extended until December 20 by Russian authorities.