When news of star U.S. women’s basketball player Brittney Griner being arrested at a Russian airport for having cannabis vape cartridges in her suitcase emerged on Saturday, it served as a reminder to American travelers and those from other marijuana-legal countries: don’t bring cannabis abroad.
In the U.S., Transportation Security Administration does not specifically search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, even though cannabis is still federally illegal. The TSA’s main objective is finding threats that might disrupt the security of flights originating from a U.S. airport — explosives, weapons and the like. But TSA officials who discover “significant” portions of the plant as part of a routine search may refer suspected illegal activity to local law enforcement.
It’s not just Russia
That’s a small slap on the wrist compared to what can happen in other countries. Foreigners who enter places like Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Japan — where federal marijuana penalties are among the most strict in the world — could find themselves in jail for the rest of their lives. More likely, as long as they’re still at the airport, people carrying cannabis will simply be denied entry into a country and forced to return home.
In the case of Brittney Griner, who is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and has split her seven-year professional career playing for teams in the U.S. and Russia, she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated in recent weeks following Russia’s military invasion of neighboring Ukraine, leading to speculation that Russia jailed Griner for politically motivated reasons.
Not the first
But Griner’s arrest wasn’t the first time a cannabis-related fiasco has played out in a Russian airport. A 25-year-old Israeli-American woman spent nine months in a Russian prison from April 2019 to January 2020 after arriving at the Moscow airport with nine grams of marijuana in her luggage. It took a pardon from Vladimir Putin, who was pressured before a visit from then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to free the woman from what would have been a seven-year prison sentence.
Around the same time, 19-year-old U.S. student Audrey Lorber pleaded guilty to “attempting to transport marijuana” when authorities in St. Petersburg found over a dozen grams of the plant in her suitcase. Though Lorber had documentation of a medical prescription for the plant, St. Petersburg authorities claimed the prescription was not valid in Russia.