Free All the Brittneys

Free All the Brittneys

(Brittney Griner in the Russian Court photo credit)

We cannot possibly know all of the back channel diplomatic and legal maneuvering going on in the case of Brittney Griner, the Olympic champion and WNBA star now sentenced to 9 years in a Russian prison for possessing cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage.  We can imagine that Russian President Putin and his gang were overjoyed to have such a valuable pawn in Russia’s political chess match with the United States and the free world even as Putin pursues an appallingly vicious war against Ukraine.  We can hear some critics chortling that the basketball player got what she deserved for using a substance that some states have legalized but the federal government steadfastly has not, even though she had a medical prescription for the substance.  We can hope that the negotiators for the U.S. and Russia will find a speedy and humane way to reach a deal to free Brittany and other Americans wrongfully imprisoned after show trials in Russia.  Many of us hope to cheer for Brittany once more when she resumes her rightful place on the only court she ever wanted to dominate, the basketball court.  We can also then resume the important and robust debate about why American women professional athletes are so poorly paid that they have to moonlight in other countries.  Soccer’s professional women recently won a great victory for equal rights in pay, basketball should follow their lead!

But let’s set aside the politics for a moment to consider the person, and all persons like her who get swept up in the machinery of legal systems that have little mercy — particularly for persons of color, particularly for Black persons accused of marijuana offenses.

When I have watched parts of the Griner trial, seen the photos of her walk to the court while handcuffed to a Russian officer, looked at her in the cage used for prisoners in Russian courts — when I have seen her in these last few weeks, I have not seen a basketball star, but rather, a lonely, scared, emotionally scarred young woman, a Black woman so publicly experiencing what thousands of Black persons have experienced privately in our own legal system in the United States.  The Griner case must force us to look in the mirror at how our own legal system treats minor marijuana offenses.

Hundreds of thousands of persons in the U.S. are arrested every year on marijuana offenses, and Black persons are about four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession even though usage data shows the same level of use comparing racial groups.  (ACLU: A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform) Even though 18 states and DC have taken steps for partial or full legalization of marijuana, some for medical uses and some for full recreational use, the volume of arrests remains high — and the impact on Black families and communities, in particular, remains egregious.  Tens of thousands of persons in the U.S. prison system are incarcerated for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Black persons are a disproportionate number of that group.

Reasonable people can have many differences of opinion when it comes to the question of full legalization of marijuana.  But the real question that begs for more enlightened solutions is whether this nation will ever achieve true racial justice when selective enforcement of marijuana laws continues to target Black persons disproportionately for criminal prosecution, and whether this nation’s resources should continue to fund the practice of incarceration for possession of small amounts especially when the evidence so clearly shows profound racism in the application of the law.  Surely the tax dollars we spend on imprisoning persons for minor offenses could be better spent on improved education about drugs (and alcohol!) and better access to health resources, including emotional health resources.

We can be and should be legitimately outraged at the Russian behavior in the Griner case.  But let’s free all the Brittneys.  Let’s channel some of that outrage into reforming our own domestic legal system that perpetrates racial injustice in the selective enforcement of marijuana laws and cruel methods of punishment for minor offenses.