As outrage mounts over WNBA star Brittney Griner’s prison sentence in Russia, harsh U.S. weed laws are also coming under scrutiny.
Even if Brittney Griner serves her full nine-year prison sentence, she’d be free from a Russian penal colony by 2031—but Allen Russell would still be sitting in a Mississippi prison for getting caught with less than two ounces of weed.
Russell, who’s also Black, was sentenced to life in prison for possession of 43 grams of cannabis in 2019. In June, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld his sentence and ruled that it wasn’t “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Lawyers for Griner are appealing the 31-year-old WNBA star’s conviction for drug possession and smuggling after she was caught with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo International Airport, near Moscow. The Russian government has also said it’s willing to discuss a prisoner swap.
But as outrage mounts over Griner’s imprisonment, many lawyers and anti-prohibition advocates point out that the U.S. regularly doles out harsh sentences to people, especially Black Americans, for weed crimes.
Despite a wave of U.S. states legalizing weed in recent years, it’s still a Schedule I substance (the same category as heroin) at the federal level, meaning the government believes it has a high potential for abuse and is not an accepted medical treatment. Hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for weed every year, and the American Civil Liberties Union foundthat Black people are nearly four times more likely to get arrested for possession than white people are, despite the two groups having similar rates of use.
“We have thousands of people who are sitting in jail, in prison today because of marijuana offenses, including low-level marijuana offenses. So it makes it really hard for us to stand on any legal ground or even moral high ground,” said Maritza Perez, director of federal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Some of the harshest sentences happen in states with so-called “three strikes” or habitual offender laws, which punish people with prior convictions more severely. In some cases, if a person commits three felonies, a judge must impose the harshest sentence upon the third conviction.
In Russell’s case, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole because of his prior burglary convictions. Burglary is considered a violent offense in Mississippi regardless of whether there’s proof that violence occurred.
He’s not alone. Mississippi mother Tameka Drummer is also serving a life sentence for less than two ounces of weed under the state’s habitual offender laws. Trent Bouhdida was 21 when he was caught selling an undercover cop an ounce of weed in 2015; because of his prior convictions, Bouhdida, a Black man, was sentenced to 16 years in jail, as reported by the Phoenix New Times.
President Joe Biden has said Russia is “wrongfully detaining Brittney.”
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately,” Biden said in a statement. He made no mention of Russia’s drug laws or jailing people for cannabis.
“Joe Biden’s calling for her [Griner’s] release and talking about how unjust a nine-year sentence is—40,000 people today are incarcerated for marijuana offenses in the United States, even as the legal cannabis industry is booming,” said Scott Hechinger, a civil rights attorney and founder of Zealous, an advocacy group dedicated to ending mass incarceration.
Hechinger said prosecutors are “the most powerful actors in the system” and that they could use their discretion to decline to charge any case or whole classes of cases.
But he said that while lengthy sentences for cannabis are egregious, the everyday interactions people have with police over cannabis, such as being pulled over because of the smell of weed, are equally “unnecessary and unjust.”
Even places with legal weed continue to struggle with accusations of overpolicing.
Bonita Money, co-founder of the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance (NDICA), a group that advocates for equity in legal weed, said she was concerned that California’s push to legalize weed would create a “new war on drugs” because of the new regulations that come with a legal regime.
About seven months ago, she said police set up a cannabis checkpoint in South Los Angeles and pulled over one of her colleagues, who is Black, because he smelled like weed.
“We’re a weed facility. Everybody smells like weed that comes from our facility,” she said, alleging that cops searched her colleague’s car and made him complete a series of roadside sobriety tests. (The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Griner’s sentence has been widely seen as political, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But experts think of it as a drug policy issue.
“They’ve been trying to frame this as a diplomatic issue, an issue of wrongful detention and not really a drug policy issue, which is what I think it is,” Perez said.
“It’s smart of them to do that, politically, because then they can avoid Biden’s own record on drug policy and marijuana and the fact that he has not fulfilled his campaign promises.”
Biden backed the 1994 crime bill, which bolstered the war on drugs, particularly in Black and brown communities. Vice President Kamala Harris was also called out for hypocrisy after she decried Griner’s imprisonment; as former attorney general of California, Harris oversaw 1,900 cannabis convictions, according to the Mercury News, though she now says she supports decriminalization.
Although Attorney General Merrick Garland has reiterated that the federal government won’t go after cannabis users, Biden has not made steps toward removing cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances, which Perez called “very disappointing.” Weed is still completely illegal in four states and recreational use is illegal in more than half the country.
Biden could enact a number of measures to address some of these disparities, according to the experts who spoke to VICE News, including granting clemency to people still imprisoned for weed crimes, supporting federal cannabis decriminalization, and stopping evictions of cannabis users who live in public housing.
“It’s not that we’re just slamming the United States to slam the United States,” Hechinger said. “It’s because we can do so much better. And it’s time to look internally.”