Russia announced on Saturday that WNBA player Brittney Griner has been arrested for possession of cannabis vape cartridges, an offense that could subject the All-Star athlete to a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Griner’s arrest comes in the midst of a war between Russia and Ukraine, which began with an invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The Russian Customs Service said on Saturday that a women’s basketball player from the United States had been detained after the cannabis vape cartridges were discovered in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, although Griner was not identified by name, and the date of the arrest was not specified. The customs service also released a video that appears to depict Griner making her way through an airport security checkpoint.
The Russian news agency TASS then reported that the arrested player was Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Although the date of Griner’s arrest was not announced, media outlets reported that she has been in custody since February. Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, appeared to confirm reports of the arrest in a statement on Saturday.
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams and the WNBA and NBA,” Kagawa Colas said. “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
WNBA Star Player
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, played on the Mercury’s league championship team in 2014 and has been chosen as a league All-Star seven times. She was in Russia to play the winter basketball season, a practice common with many WNBA players. She has played in Russia for the last seven seasons earning more than $1 million per year, about four times her annual salary with the WNBA. On January 29, she played her most recent game with her team UMMC Ekaterinburg before the Russian league took a two-week break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support, and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States,” the league said in a statement on Saturday.
More than a dozen WNBA players, including league MVP Jonquel Jones and two players from the league champion Chicago Sky, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, were in Ukraine and Russia to play basketball this winter. The WNBA said on Saturday that all players except Griner had left the two warring countries. The players’ union also issued a statement of support on Monday.
“We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being,” the WNBAPA said. “On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S.”
Russia and Ukraine At War
Griner’s arrest comes in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, potentially entwining her in an ongoing diplomatic row between the United States and Russia. On Saturday, the same day that news of Griner’s arrest made headlines, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to Russia, citing “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and “the Embassy’s limited ability to assist” Americans in the country.
News of Griner’s arrest drew swift rebuke from U.S. officials. Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston in the U.S. House of Representatives, issued a statement over the weekend calling for her release.
“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items, but let me be very clear,” she said at a public event Saturday, “Brittney Griner is a United States citizen; she was a guest in Russia … and I will be demanding her release.”
Texas Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro took to social media to demand Griner’s release.
“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining and imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed,” Castro wrote on Twitter. “US citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor and other Americans must be safely returned,” he added, referring to Griner and a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced in 2020 to nine years in prison for assaulting two police officers. His family claims the charges are untrue and politically motivated.
Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, warned any Americans remaining in Russia to leave the country immediately.
“I obviously don’t know the circumstances of her detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” McFaul told the New York Times. “Get out. Shut down your businesses now.”