Brittney Griner's cannabis use is normal in America. But Russia's drug laws are 'draconian.'

·8 min read

For as much as cannabis use, in its various forms, is accepted commercially and therapeutically in many parts of the United States, the rest of the world has yet to adopt similar views and laws.

Many countries will imprison a person for possessing THC products that are legal in the United States, Russian legal expert Jamison Firestone said.

“Russian drug laws are draconian,” Firestone told USA TODAY Sports. “But so are Saudi, Singaporean and Chinese laws.”

This is what led to Brittney Griner’s arrest on Feb. 17 in Russia. The two-time gold medalist faces 10 years in jail on drug charges after border officials said they found “narcotics” while Griner passed through Sheremetyevo Airport. During Griner’s trial, which could end as early as this week, prosecutors argued she had approximately 0.7 grams of cannabis in vape cartridges. Griner pleaded guilty “without intent” and said she accidentally placed the cannabis in her luggage while packing quickly. The State Department classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" on May 3.

When Jeff Konin speaks about cannabis use with the medical staffs of any sports team that may travel, he delivers a clear message.

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“It is really important to understand the state laws when you cross borders, when you are on an airplane and obviously when you switch countries,” the clinical professor at Florida International University told USA TODAY Sports.

Players’ management and representation need to stress awareness of what an athlete may be carrying when traveling to a place that is not marijuana-friendly, Firestone said. Flying domestically with marijuana is also prohibited. Check every pocket and bag while packing, he added.

Brittney Griner holds up a photo of players from the recent WNBA All-Star Game wearing her number while sitting in a cage in a Russian court room.
Brittney Griner holds up a photo of players from the recent WNBA All-Star Game wearing her number while sitting in a cage in a Russian court room.

“It should be like a travel checklist to make 100% sure you don’t have this stuff while traveling with a stern warning of the consequences if you do,” Firestone said of abroad travel. “Because it’s not a slap on the wrist.

“It could destroy your life.”

Even if the amount is less than what could fill a standard one-gram vape cannister.

“Certainly nothing you could argue was used for trafficking. It would be very reasonable to say it’s a personal amount, and really only a personable amount for a small period of time,” said Josiah Hesse, the author of a book about the combined effects of cannabis and exercise called “Runner’s High.”

'A way to cope'

From Ricky Williams to Matt Barnes to Jonathan Papelbon, ex-pros have been forthcoming about their use of marijuana.

“Cannabis, what I hear from so many athletes, is that it takes away from all the ancillary (things) – all the data, all the chatter, all the sponsors,” Hesse told USA TODAY Sports

Anxiety reduction is one reason an athlete – or anyone – may use marijuana. Another is chronic pain, the reason Griner had a physician’s recommendation for marijuana, her lawyers argued in Russian court.

But specifically for athletes, Hesse said, it can settle the mind for those who are always “on.”

“It puts them back in the moment and it reminds them why they got into basketball or running or tennis in the first place,” Hesse said.

Some pros may have nine-figure incomes, but they are still human, former NBA player Al Harrington said.

“Life is hard, man, especially over the last couple of years,” said Harrington, who is now the CEO and founder of Viola Brands, a cannabis company. “(Athletes) want a way to cope with things. I feel like cannabis allows that.”

Konin said studies that survey athletes typically reveal a 30% usage rate. That figure is likely underreported.

Cannabis can be recommend by a doctor for treatment although the government still considers it a Schedule I drug. Other Schedule I drugs include ecstasy, heroin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Cocaine, fentanyl and Ritalin are among Schedule II drugs (high potential for abuse with the potential to lead to severe psychological or physical dependence).

Dr. Kenneth R. Weinberg, chief medical officer of Cannabis Doctors of New York, who was an emergency room doctor for 35 years and has been working with patients in the marijuana field since 2016, disagrees with the government’s assessment of what a Schedule I narcotic is.

Weinberg said marijuana is a vastly superior alternative for pain management than opioids, and points to the fact that some drugs, including cocaine, also have medical benefits as it has been used to treat nosebleeds and is a local anesthetic.

“Any substance that somebody can take that they have some psychoactive effect from is potentially addictive, but cannabis is among the lowest of them,” Weinberg said. “As a physician, I have to be objective. This is a great substance. It’s been around for 5,000 years. It doesn’t make sense to make it on the level as other substances on the list.”

Thirty-one states and Washington D.C. have decriminalized the possession of varying small amounts of marijuana.

In Arizona, where Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury, citizens can possess an ounce of marijuana. Five grams of marijuana plant resin is legal for wax or oil for vape pens and the drug can’t be publicly consumed.

The four major sports men’s professional leagues in North America each approach marijuana use differently.

In the NFL, players are no longer suspended for using marijuana, but can be fined, with the testing window being reduced significantly. The NBA also prohibits marijuana use and has also condensed its testing protocol. MLB views the drug the same as alcohol after removing it from its banned substance list in 2019. The NHL also screens for the drug, but if a player has high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the main components in marijuana, the league recommends the player for treatment.

The WNBA has its own rules governed by language in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

The WNBA does not classify marijuana as a drug of abuse like the federal government does but it is listed under one of three categories for prohibited substances. The WNBA has worked extensively with the U.S. government to bring Griner home safely. It declined comment on Griner’s lawyer stating in Russian court that Griner had received medical clearance in the U.S. to use marijuana or the league’s drug policy.

The medical community is hesitant to embrace marijuana use because of the absence of quality research allowed on humans. All evidence of benefits is anecdotal. The effects on the lungs, heart and brain of smoking or vaping, for example, two decades from the time of use are still unknown, Konin said.

“We just need a lot of science to catch up to essentially verify what the athletes who are using marijuana are telling us and if there are really any short- and long-term concerns,” Konin said.

A changing stigma

The World Anti-Doping Agency bans cannabis. That view has little to do with science, Hesse said (although its capabilities as a performance-enhancer aren’t fully understood).

“This is a cultural issue. WADA and a lot of professional sports are still living in Nancy Reagan’s America,” he said. “Good people do not use marijuana – that’s basically what WADA is getting at with their ban.”

That philosophy is why, despite its growing popularity, openly discussing cannabis use is mostly taboo in the sports industry.

“At the end of the day, this is about sports being a family-friendly event and certain people thinking that cannabis use is not compatible with family-friendly arenas,” he said.

In June, MLB started allowing teams to sell sponsorships of CBD products – CBD is the chemical found in marijuana but without THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces the feeling of being “high.”

The stigma within athletics has transformed within the last decade, Konin said, for two primary reasons: the disproportionate criminalization of racial minorities and social inequities relative to marijuana use combined with athletes seeking an alternative to painkillers.

Griner’s case has helped raise that awareness once again, Harrington said.

“So now it’s on us to try and figure out how to make that a positive and we need to start by getting her home,” he said.

The next step is freeing Americans currently incarcerated within the system for marijuana-related offenses, Harrington added.

“Reform needs to happen at a lot of different levels,” Harrington said. “Hopefully once we get her home, that will also be able to spark the conversation.”

It’s unlikely current athletes will clamor to tell their marijuana use tales. It wasn’t long ago Josh Gordon was suspended 78 games by the NFL and effectively blackballed for his marijuana use. Last year’s suspension of U.S. track and field sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who missed the Tokyo Olympics, will only dissuade them, Hesse said.

During an appearance on David Letterman’s Netflix show, Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant said he wants to change the narrative around athletes using marijuana and admitted to being high on set.

“You would think that was headline news. It wasn’t,” Harrington said. “There was no backlash, because I think the stigma has for sure changed.”

Stars telling their cannabis stories will only keep changing the stigma, Harrington said.

“He’s arguably the best player in the NBA and he uses cannabis,” Harrington said. “Stigma would tell you the opposite, that he should be the worst player, the most unmotivated player, the guy that’s not focused and shooting airballs or whatever.

“It’s guys like that, at that level to preach the gospel and let people know that they use it for different reasons, I think the stigma will continue to fall in sports. It’s going to take some of the top guys.”

Contributing: Mike Freeman

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner's normal cannabis use is issue in 'draconian' Russia