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KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — The drug trial of American basketball star Brittney Griner in a Russian court focused Tuesday on testimony that cannabis, while illegal in Russia, is regarded in other countries as having legitimate medicinal use. Moscow’s harsh drug laws are under the spotlight following the American basketball star’s arrest.

Russian expert at Griner’s trial discusses medical cannabis

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner stands in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. American basketball star Brittney Griner has returned to a Russian courtroom for her drawn-out trial on drug charges that could bring her 10 years in prison if convicted. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner stands in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. American basketball star Brittney Griner has returned to a Russian courtroom for her drawn-out trial on drug charges that could bring her 10 years in prison if convicted. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — The drug trial of American basketball star Brittney Griner in a Russian court focused Tuesday on testimony that cannabis, while illegal in Russia, is regarded in other countries as having legitimate medicinal use.

Griner acknowledged in court earlier this month that she was carrying vape canisters containing cannabis oil when she was arrested in February at a Moscow airport. But she contends she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage inadvertently because of hasty packing.

“We are not arguing that Brittney took it here as a medicine. We are still saying that she involuntarily brought it here because she was in a rush,” defense attorney Alexander Boykov said after the hearing.

Another member of Griner’s defense team previously submitted a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending the basketball player use medical cannabis to treat pain. During Tuesday’s court session, a Russian neuropsychologist testified about worldwide use of medicinal cannabis.

“The Russian public has to know, and the Russian court in the first place has to know, that it was not used for recreational purposes in the United States. It was prescribed by a doctor,” lawyer Boykov said.

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A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said last week that the legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use in parts of the U.S. had no bearing on what happens in Russia.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, pleaded guilty to drug possession charges at the second hearing of her trial, which started July 1. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.. The medical testimony and Griner’s admission that she had the canisters were aimed at earning her a mild sentence.

“We have a lot of mitigating factors. So we do hope that the court will take it into consideration. And the courts in Russia, in fact, have very broad discretion with regard to the sentence,” said Maria Blagovolina, another of Griner’s lawyers.

Five court sessions have taken place so far, some lasting only about an hour. After Tuesday’s session of about 90 minutes, the case was adjourned until Wednesday afternoon.

It is unclear how long the trial will last, but a court has authorized Griner’s detention until Dec. 20.

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The slow-moving trial and Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States, which has formally declared her to be “wrongfully detained,” a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.

Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires, attended Tuesday’s court session. Griner “confirms that she is doing OK and as well as can be expected under these circumstances,” Rood told reporters.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired a producer’s brief interview with Griner in which she wished her wife, Cherelle, “good luck on the bar exam.”

When asked whether she had any complaints, Griner replied: “No, no complaints. Just waiting patiently.” She displayed photos of her wife, friends and teammates.

Griner was arrested in February amid high U.S.-Moscow tensions ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine later that month. Some supporters contend she is being held in Russia as a pawn, possibly for a prisoner swap. American soccer notable Megan Rapinoe last week said “she’s being held as a political prisoner, obviously.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry last week lashed out at the U.S. contention that Griner was being wrongfully detained and said Russian laws should be respected.

“If a U.S. citizen was taken in connection with the fact that she was smuggling drugs, and she does not deny this, then this should be commensurate with our Russian local laws, and not with those adopted in San Francisco, New York and Washington,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

“If drugs are legalized in the United States, in a number of states, and this is done for a long time and now the whole country will become drug-addicted, this does not mean that all other countries are following the same path,” she added.

Russian media have speculated that Griner could be exchanged for prominent Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, who is imprisoned in the United States, and that Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, may also figure in an exchange.

U.S. officials have not commented on the prospects for such a trade. Russian officials have said no exchange could be discussed until the conclusion of the legal proceedings against Griner.

Previous trial sessions have included character-witness testimony from the director and captain of the Russian team that Griner played for in the off-season, and written testimony such as the American doctor’s letter saying he had authorized her to use cannabis for pain treatment.

What to know about Brittney Griner’s case and Russia’s drug laws

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner holds photographs standing inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022 [Alexander Zemlianichenko/POOL/AFP]

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.

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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.

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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, an overdose prevention specialist.

“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.

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