US basketball star allowed to use cannabis for chronic pain, Russian trial told

A US basketball star received permission from Arizona health authorities to use cannabis for chronic pain, her lawyers have told a Russian court.

Brittney Griner appeared in court again on Friday as her drug possession trial resumed after she pleaded guilty to the charges.

“The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis. The permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health,” lawyer Maria Blagovolina was cited by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti as saying.

Brittney Griner is escorted to the courtroom (Jim Heintz/AP)

The defence also submitted tests she underwent as part of an anti-doping check, the RIA-Novosti report said. They did not detect any prohibited substances in her system.

The next hearing of Griner’s case at the Khimki district court, just outside Moscow, was scheduled for July 26.

Griner was arrested at the Russian capital’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and that their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing. She is facing up to 10 years in prison.

In Russia’s judicial system, admitting guilt does not automatically end a trial.

Griner is one of the most prominent female athletes in the US, a standout for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medallist.

US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they are doing all they can to win her release, as well as that of other Americans the US considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

Washington may have little leverage with Moscow though because of strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.

A policeman removes the handcuffs from Griner (Dmitry Serebryakov/AP)

Russian media have speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years but the wide discrepancy in the seriousness of their cases could make such a trade unpalatable to Washington.

Others have suggested that Griner could be traded along with Whelan, who is serving 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction that the US has described as a set-up.

The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator. The classification has irritated Russia.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the US, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that until her trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps”.

Mr Ryabkov warned that US criticism, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges”.

Griner’s detention has been authorised through to December 20, suggesting the trial could last months. Griner’s lawyers, however, said they expect it to conclude around the beginning of August.

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