Moscow’s harsh drug laws are under the spotlight following the American basketball star’s arrest. Russia used to be one of the world’s leading hemp producers. Now it has strict cannabis laws, and penalties are harsh for those caught using it. Read more.
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.
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, 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.
Cannabis in Russia – Laws, Use, and History
It’s illegal to possess, sell or grow cannabis in Russia. The country has the highest number of people incarcerated for drug offences in Europe (per capita), and most were imprisoned under the notorious Article 228. However, there are hints that the law may change – with the country exploring the option of importing cannabis for medical research.
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Cannabis laws in Russia
Can you possess and use cannabis in Russia?
Russia’s government takes a tough stance on possession or use of cannabis. Both are illegal, in accordance with Article 228 of the country’s Criminal Code, and are punishable with a fine and/or a prison sentence. Since 2012, the penalties can be deferred if the offender is found to have a drug problem.
Possession of up to six grams is regarded as an administrative offence. Anything above seven grams is a criminal offence. However, there are reports of people being arrested for cannabis possession, only to have the authorities exaggerate the amount of cannabis they were caught with.
For ‘large-scale’ possession, the following punishments may be given:
- A fine of up to 40,000 roubles
- The equivalent amount of three months of the offender’s wages/salary
- Compulsory works for up to 480 hours
- Corrective labour for up to two years
- Restriction or deprivation of liberty for up to three years (in most instances, prison)
For ‘especially large-scale’ possession, these penalties are increased to:
- A fine of up to 500,000 roubles
- The equivalent amount of three years of the offender’s wages/salary
- And/or a restriction or deprivation of liberty for three to 10 years
If the individual willingly hands the cannabis over to the authorities, and ‘actively contributes’ to the uncovering and suppression of drugs-related activities, he may avoid being given any penalties.
In real terms, possessing or using cannabis in Russia is a risky practice. For offenders, the acquittal rate is 0.1%, with most being sentenced to three years in prison. Close to half of the 102,217 guilty verdicts in 2017 were for those convicted of cannabis or other soft drugs-related offences.
Despite this, there are still large numbers of drug users in the country. It’s estimated that they number between 7.3 and 8.5 million in total.
Can you sell cannabis in Russia?
Likewise, it’s illegal to sell cannabis in Russia and the sale of the substance is regarded as a serious offence. If caught selling cannabis or any other drugs, the offender will be deprived of liberty for four to eight years with restriction of liberty for up to one year.
However, what is considered ‘large-scale’ selling or carried out as part of a bigger group of people increases the prison term to five to 12 years and is possibly accompanied by fine too, of up to 500,000 roubles (or three years’ salary).
If it’s on an especially large scale, or the offender is operating as part of an organised gang, or he is selling the cannabis through his official position at work, then the sentence is further elevated to a prison term of eight to 20 years. Additionally, the right to work in certain roles or engage in specific activities may be removed, and there’s also the risk of having to pay one million roubles as a fine (or five years’ salary).
In spite of these tough penalties, drug trafficking remains an issue in Russia. In 2016, Viktor Ivanov (the former head of the country’s drug enforcement agency), estimated that the narcotics industry was generating an annual profit of 1.5 trillion roubles.
Unemployment sometimes drives Russians to sell drugs to make a living. One online dealer commented to the Moscow Times: “You’re looking for legitimate ways to make ends meet. And then you think: Screw this, I’m going to do the only thing I’m good at, which is selling drugs.”
He also pointed to the city of Windhoek, the coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, and the northern town of Oshakati as key areas where drug dealing is most rampant.
Can you grow cannabis in Russia?
It’s illegal to grow cannabis in Russia. The sentences are the same for cultivation as they are for sale, with hefty prison sentences in place for those who are caught growing even small numbers of plants.
In June 2019, the government showed signs of relaxing this law to an extent. They passed a bill, permitting the cultivation of cannabis for pharmaceutical purposes. The bill still needs to be approved by the Federation Council and signed by President Vladimir Putin in order to become law.
If passed, it would permit state companies to grow cannabis, providing they have a special licence to do so.
Is CBD legal in Russia?
All cannabis products are illegal in Russia, regardless of how much THC (the substance responsible for the ‘high’) they contain. As such, individuals may not possess, sell or buy any CBD products in the country.
Can cannabis seeds be sent to Russia?
Cannabis seeds are also illegal, and may not be sent into the country via the mail.
Medicinal cannabis in Russia
At present, Russia has no medicinal cannabis programme. Neither has the government expressed any intention to introduce one in the future. However, the country’s health ministry has stated that it wants to import cannabis for medical research purposes.
A draft regulation document states that both hashish and cannabis are required to study drug addiction, and to isolate active ingredients. It also proposes to import 1.1 kilograms of cannabis, 300 grams of hashish, and 50 grams of hash oil to fulfil these requirements.
This isn’t the first time that Russia has relaxed its laws regarding medicinal cannabis. For example, in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, foreign football fans were permitted to bring medicinal cannabis with them, as long as they had a prescription.
Industrial hemp in Russia
Hemp was once an important crop for Russia. In fact, by the end of the 18 th century, hemp fibre provided one of the main sources of income for many parts of the country. This continued until the 19 th century when Russia was responsible for producing around 40% of Europe’s hemp.
This changed during the early 1900s. The hemp trade began to decline, not only due to negative perceptions of the plant, but also because of shrinking acreage and low yields. The socialist reconstruction of agriculture changed the face of hemp cultivation in the country.
Hemp was never made illegal though, and is still grown in Russia. The Konoplex Group is a good example of an organisation profiting from hemp in the country.
Politics and cannabis
President Vladimir Putin has always adopted an anti-cannabis stance. For example, he was openly critical of Canada’s decision to legalise the drug, with his government claiming that the country had “deliberately decided to breach” international law.
He’s also expressed a desire to censor other aspects of Russian life, in a bid to curb cannabis use. In 2018, he put forward a suggestion to control rap music, as some tracks referenced drug use. Likewise, his government threatened to block Wikipedia if a page detailing how to make a specific type of hash wasn’t taken down.
Good to know
If you are travelling to Russia (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following: