A week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Brittney Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where cannabis oil vape cartridges were found in her luggage.
Griner, an American basketball star and Olympic medallist who played part-time in a Russian team, admitted the cartridges were hers and that she had packed in a hurry, not intending to break Russian law.
She was charged with drug trafficking, an offence that could see her imprisoned for up to 10 years. She is attending a fifth hearing of her trial on Tuesday.
The case comes as hostility seethes between Russia and the United States, with anger growing towards Moscow for its war.
But the story of an American trapped abroad has brought the drug laws of both nations into the spotlight.
Although Russia had drug control laws since tsarist times, enforcement was practically non-existent until 1924, when the communist Bolshevik government considered narcotic addiction a symptom of a decadent capitalist society and began cracking down.
Pilfered hospital supplies were the main source of drugs until the 1980s, when a new pathway for heroin and hashish was opened by the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan.
By the late 1990s, heroin was considered a serious problem, and vigilante gangs targeted Roma communities which were blamed as the source of the scourge.
Now, the most popular drugs are synthetic stimulants such as mephedrone, which are sold over the dark web and Telegram.
“There was a well-known case where a narcotics detective accused his colleagues of creating their own drug store over the dark net, hiring couriers and other workers, then busting them all and pretending they’d broken up an organised ring – a crime they’d instigated themselves,” human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson told Al Jazeera.
“He was later imprisoned for revealing state secrets. It’s hard to know the full scale, but anecdotal evidence suggests these ‘red’ [police-operated] shops are quite common. It’s well known that police are involved in narcotrafficking. There’s never been a war between the police and drug dealers in Russia because they’re in a complete symbiosis.”
There are no claims Griner was set up, but among her cellmates, it could be a possibility.
Although personal possession is theoretically decriminalised, officers most commonly find just enough narcotics to launch a criminal case.
“These are not isolated, rare cases but [part of] a systemic phenomenon that happens more-or-less constantly,” explained Levinson.
“There are two main causes. The first and most common is corruption, to accuse someone, then demand a bribe. Drugs are typically planted on those known to indulge in them, on the principle that ‘a thief must sit in prison’. Less commonly, evidence is planted for political reasons, as an instrument for dealing with troublesome characters.”
In 2019, journalist Ivan Golunov was writing a story about the funeral industry for the independent news site Meduza when he was detained. Mephedrone and cocaine were planted in his backpack. He was released a few days later after a rare public outcry, and last year the officers who framed him were carted away to penal colonies themselves.
“There is a system known as ‘the stick’ by which police work is assessed,” Levinson continued.
“The police have to show they’re doing something to earn their wages and clear no fewer cases than they did the previous year. And it’s easier, of course, to simply make these cases up.”
As well as planting evidence, officers have also been known to pressure detainees to save themselves by luring their friends into a sting.
Article 228 of the Russian criminal code, which refers to drug possession, is now known as “the people’s statute” because there are more people imprisoned under it than any other crime – more than a quarter of all prisoners.
Griner is not the only foreigner stuck in this predicament.
Former American diplomat Mark Vogel, accused of drug smuggling when he was caught at Sheremetyevo with 17 grams of medical cannabis prescribed to him by a doctor after he underwent spinal surgery, is also languishing in a Russian prison.
And so is Daniel Diaz-Strukov; the Russian-Peruvian is serving seven years after he was found with trace amounts of the banned psychedelic DMT – which were in medicine he imported accidentally.
In 2019, 25-year-old Israeli backpacker Naama Issahar was stopped in Sheremetyevo with nearly 10 grams of hashish while on a layover from India. She was convicted of narco-trafficking but was freed several months later, after then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally intervened on her behalf.
Foreigners tend to receive stricter sentences
The White House claims Griner has been wrongly detained, but Russia denies her case is politically motivated.
“Foreigners tend to receive stricter sentences because it’s harder to impose a non-custodial sentence,” said Levinson.
“At her level, 0.7 grams of hashish oil is considered a significant quantity and the majority of cases end in a prison term. If she receives a sentence longer than three years, it’s likely politically motivated, but otherwise, it’s just an illustration of the sort of people serving jail time for drug smuggling in Russia.”
At a recent court hearing, Griner’s lawyers presented a doctor’s note that she had been prescribed medical cannabis, but Russia does not recognise the healing power of the drug.
In fact, even discussing it could land you in trouble.
Russian law forbids “narco-propaganda” – the promotion or encouragement of drug use.
In October, famous YouTuber Yuri Dud was fined for his interview with Ukrainian blogger EeOneGuy, in which EeOneGuy discussed taking drugs.
Fines have even been handed out for wearing hats decorated with a cannabis leaf.
Those working with addicts say this law prevents important safety advice from being shared.
“The law on narco-propaganda has greatly complicated preventive work with people who use drugs,” said Aleksey Lakhov, deputy director at Humanitarian Action, a Saint Petersburg NGO which works to contain the spread of HIV.
“There is the completely terrible example with [another NGO] which was fined 800,000 roubles [$13,700] for an article on harm reduction in the use of certain types of drugs. Therefore, many organisations think twice before developing harm reduction materials. And with the introduction of criminal liability for the promotion of drugs on the internet, the situation will worsen even more.”
Despite Russia’s tough anti-drugs stance, the country suffers one of the world’s worst HIV outbreaks spread by injecting drugs, with an estimated 0.7 percent of the population living with the virus, while fatal overdoses have doubled since 2019.
But Russia is not the only nation with strict, and sometimes problematic, drug laws.
Although marijuana is legalised in 19 American states, there are others such as Mississippi and Louisiana where prisoners are still serving life sentences over small amounts of cannabis.
“This is not just a unique international and political incident, it’s a moment when we need collective reflection on our own disastrous drug policies in the United States,” said Grey Gardner, senior staff lawyer at the Drug Policy Alliance.
“Whether Ms Griner would have been detained in the US under similar circumstances depends on many factors, including where the stop and arrest occurred. But it certainly does happen throughout the country that people are locked up for possession alone, and in horribly inequitable ways.
“Even as we’ve expanded access to regulated marijuana in many states, it hasn’t ended the invasive surveillance, the violent militarised police tactics, and the arrest, prosecution and stigmatisation of over 1.2 million people for possession of drugs.”
In 2020, Griner wore a jersey on the basketball court bearing the name of Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky ambulance worker killed in a drug raid that ultimately found no drugs.