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It’s been just under a month since WNBA superstar and two-time Olympic champion Brittney Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow.

At first, news of her arrest and indefinite confinement by Russian authorities was kept quiet — an intentional choice made by league officials and Griner’s loved ones out of concern that high-profile coverage could clue Russian officials in about Griner’s celebrity and thus jeopardize her release. But the tragic onset of war in Ukraine has thrust the story into the spotlight and left Griner’s situation worryingly unclear.

In attempting to parse out all the factors at play here, the relevance of cannabis to the situation is relatively minor. Griner’s continued detainment stems over her alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, found in her luggage while attempting to travel from Moscow to New York. Perhaps Griner had vape cartridges containing pot oil on her person, perhaps she did not. With only the word of Russian officials to go on, there’s no way to know.

What is obvious is that the penalty for such a crime should not be a ten-year stint in prison, which is what Griner currently faces as she awaits the next phase of her case. More relevant to this situation is the reason Griner was playing basketball in Russia in the first place.

As The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill explained in a recent op-ed:

“Griner’s decision to play basketball in a country that suppresses personal freedoms is a matter of simple economics. Many WNBA stars work in other countries during the WNBA’s off-season because doing so is more lucrative than playing in the U.S. Griner is reportedly earning more than $1 million to play for her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. In the WNBA, her base salary with the Mercury for this past season was $221,450.”

Simply put: Griner is in Russia because the WNBA — a league which counts her as one of its biggest stars — doesn’t pay her enough to be able to take time off between seasons. By contrast, Stephen Curry will make $45.8 million this season as the highest-paid player in the NBA. That Griner felt obligated to take this job even as Russian hostilities towards Ukraine have continued to escalate, thus putting her at greater risk of a complicated path home, is not a matter of poor morals but one of shameful economic disparities.

Mugshot of Griner as shown on Russian State TV

Adding urgency to the whole matter is Griner’s public identity as a Black, openly gay woman. Recapping the Russian government’s hostilities towards the LGBTQ+ community over the past two decades, the San Diego Tribune described the actions of President Vladimir Putin as waging “an all-out assault on the LGBTQ community,” later adding that Putin “has called gender fluidity ‘a crime against humanity’ and equated homosexuality with pedophilia.”

To be certain, cannabis is not the focus of this matter. However, it is important to recognize the value draconian drug policy offers to authorities in need of a reason to arrest, search, or detain an individual. Unlike the uproar that followed news of runner Sha’Carri Richardson’s ban from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for testing positive for cannabis, we don’t even know if Griner used cannabis or had any in her possession.

This isn’t to say that Richardson was any more deserving of her unfair treatment; it’s just to underscore the madness at the heart of what Griner is going through. And using drug laws as a pretext to target specific communities is not a tactic specific to Russia. One need only look at America’s own (and still ongoing) War on Drugs to find numerous examples of similarly insidious efforts pursued by past presidents and top government officials.

Griner’s detention should also serve as a reminder that attitudes towards cannabis vary wildly around the globe.

Given the athlete (like Richardson before her) has expressed no public desire to be spotlighted as a cannabis user or advocate, it’s unfair to use her situation as a springboard to stump for drug law reform. But that said, it is likewise impossible to see their circumstances and not consider how different things might have been had pot prohibition not been on the table.

In the interim, the immediate focus and concern remains for Griner’s well-being and safe return. It’s a fraught situation as Russia’s Customs Service is claiming the basketball star “was ‘smuggling significant amounts of narcotic substances’ and says that a criminal case is underway,” The Guardian reports.

But as of March 10, Senior Black Democrats in Congress — including Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Black Caucus — have begun working to help free Griner. While a seemingly promising development, Beatty sounded hesitant to confirm much when asked to comment.

“We have to be very careful,” Beatty told Politico. “I think we said a lot today. I probably would not have said as much because eyes are everywhere watching and things get reported and one word being left out or too aggressive, because you’re dealing with unknown factors dealing with Putin and Russia.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) shared that she had raised the issue directly with President Biden and his Cabinet during a meeting held Monday and will continue to spearhead efforts to ensure Griner’s safe return.

“She’s an Olympian,” Jackson Lee said. “She can dunk the ball. We have our boxing gloves on because we are not going to leave her without any ammunition.”