As the trial for WNBA star Brittany Griner continues in Russia, politicians, celebrities and ordinary people who are outraged that Griner could face 10 years in prison for packing some hash oil cartridges in her carry-on have ramped up their push for her release.
Grassroots protests have been organized across the United States, from Phoenix, Arizona, to Harlem in New York. A petition on Change.org surpassed 310,000 signatures. Celebrities, athletes and prominent politicians continue to pile on the pressure.
The near universal support for Griner is by no means surprising. Not only is she a beloved, internationally recognized athlete, but the majority of Americans (68%, to be precise) support legalizing marijuana. Seventy percent of Americans also support clearing past cannabis convictions from criminal records for nonviolent offenders.
Cannabis is a Schedule I drug in the USA
Ironically – and despite the public’s overwhelming support for an end to cannabis criminalization – the draconian Russian laws that led to Griner’s detention are similar to our own. After all, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug in the United States. This means that under federal drug trafficking guidelines, any U.S. citizen could face a jail sentence for flying with hash oil.
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That’s not a hypothetical situation. More than 100,000 Americans languish in pretrial detention on drug charges. And, like Griner in Russia, non-U.S. citizens are regularly prosecuted under our harsh drug laws for crossing our border with cannabis.
Of course, there is a major differentiating factor in Griner’s case. She’s a celebrity. But excepting her status as a pro athlete, Griner – a Black gay woman – would be subject to the disproportionately higher rates of enforcement for cannabis possession that affect marginalized communities, particularly people of color, in the United States.
Griner pleaded guilty Thursday but said she did not intend to violate Russia’s laws. Russian officials have signaled their openness to negotiating Griner’s fate with the United States only after a verdict is reached in her case.
Russian authorities need to stop using Griner as a political pawn and release her from detention. At the same time, U.S. authorities must stop acting hypocritically and change our laws so we’re not continuing to unjustly detain people for cannabis here at home.
President Biden has yet to act on cannabis reform
For those aware of the state of cannabis criminalization in America, the Biden administration’s underwhelming response to this case comes as no surprise.
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War on cops? Far from it. Biden takes a nudge-and-nurture approach to police reform.
Despite promising to release those in jail for cannabis and expunge their records, President Joe Biden has done nothing when it comes to cannabis policy reform.
Although more and more states have chosen to legalize marijuana, federal cannabis arrests – which had been steadily declining for the past decade – actually increased from 2020 to 2021.
Given the fact Biden has failed to help release tens of thousands of individuals wrongfully detained on nonviolent cannabis charges here in America, it feels naive to expect him to secure Griner’s freedom. (In a call Wednesday, Biden told Griner’s wife that he is working to get Griner released “as soon as possible.”)
Nonetheless, we must continue to push our elected leaders on this popular, bipartisan issue.
Congress must act – quickly
Our best hope for domestic change lies with Congress, as pundits expect Biden will sign a federal legalization bill that includes broad criminal justice provisions if one makes it to his desk. This is a daunting task, of course.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act passed a vote in the House but has failed to gain traction in the Senate.
That said, we have at least two more bites at the apple. The long-anticipated Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, is said to be nearing introduction. And there remains some traction behind the Republican-led States Reform Act.
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It’s worth noting that both the MORE Act and the States Reform Act include language that would resentence federal cannabis prisoners and clear some of their records. A forthcoming bill from Senate Democrats is also expected to automatically expunge nonviolent federal marijuana crimes and provide for resentencing.
Even so, Congress needs to act, and fast. The midterm elections are just a few months away, and a Republican-controlled Congress would make the already difficult prospect of federal legalization a nonstarter.
If we truly want to progress past our country’s shameful war on drugs, the time to act is now.
Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of Last Prisoner Project, is also a member of the National Cannabis Bar Association, the NORML Legal Committee and the National Lawyers Guild.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.