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Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison if she is convicted on drug charges in Russia.
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, professional basketball players abroad tweeted out to let fans know they were safely removed from conflict. Still, there are prominent female basketball players who remain in Russia, which has become more contentious as American and Russian relations worsen as the conflict intensifies.
Increasing the geopolitical tension is the Russian apprehension of WNBA star Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury center and seven-time WNBA All-Star who plays abroad during the WNBA offseason. Russian police have detained Griner and released a photo of her holding a sign with her name in a Russian police station. The photo, which bears similarities to the images released by political terrorists holding captive prisoners, has the U.S. State Department concerned about Griner’s welfare.
CNN reported that no one knows of Griner’s exact location at the moment, and because she has been accused of smuggling cannabis oil through a Russian airport, she could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison.
According to CNN correspondent Rosa Flores, there is also concern that the Russian government could use Griner as a negotiating tool as the crisis worsens.
WNBA star Brittney Griner now detained in Russian custody for alleged cannabis oil possession
While cannabis use is legalized in pockets throughout the United States, Russia has a notoriously strict policy on illicit substances, including marijuana. Griner has been accused of transpoting hashish oil in vape cartridges at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow as she tried to leave the country amid crisis.
Sportico spoke with legal expert on Russian law William Butler on what the Russian detainment means for Griner.
“Russia has a zero tolerance of narcotics,” Butler said, stressing that the Russian Federal Customs Service’s statement concerning a “large-scale transportation of drugs,” is critical. “This means that she allegedly had enough with her to constitute a substantial amount. That does make the potential penalty more severe.”
For those wondering why the decorated WNBA player was in Russia in the first place, it’s for one simple reason: WNBA players make more spending their offseason Europe than they do in the United States. Griner has spent her last seven offseasons playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, which allows players like her to earn more than $1 million per year.
“This is the big paycheck — for all of us,” former Mercury assistant coach Todd Troxel, who also coached for UMMC, told ESPN in 2016. “We all love Phoenix, but ultimately it’s all about here,” he said in regards to Russia.
Griner, who is a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA, will be severely missed if she is absent from the WNBA this season.