"She shouldn't have broken their laws!" Our laws are stupid. Sincerely, a Russian


Niko Vorobyov is a formerly-imprisoned Russian-British freelance journalist and author of the book Dopeworld. You can follow him on Twitter @Narco_Polo420

Last week, basketball star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison colony. Her arrest at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport might not have been political (plenty of foreigners have fallen in the same predicament), but her sentence certainly is - nine years for less than a gram of cannabis oil is exceedingly harsh, even by Russian standards.

There are of course many who say that it's her fault, that she shouldn't have brought dope to Russia and respected their laws. But as a Russian, I'd like to tell you our drug policies are completely inhumane and rotten to the core.

Brittney's has long been the reality of the tens of thousands of Russians convicted under Articles 228 and 229 of the criminal code, drug possession and trafficking, known as "the People's Law" because there are more imprisoned for it than any other. Altogether, narcotics violations account for over a quarter of all prisoners. The last few years have seen a huge rise in young people becoming couriers for dark-web drug stores, planting secret stashes in dead drops

"I can't give you an exact portrait because all sorts of people become couriers," lawyer Arseny Levinson, who specializes in drug cases, told me. "But looking at the stats for whom the government's convicted, it's mostly young people of 18-25-years-old - high school kids and students. Normally they haven't been doing this long, and aren't experienced."

Kids are kids, they make stupid mistakes. Problem is, by the time they get out, they won't be kids any more.

Cops earn their wages based on how many cases they unravel, so they regularly plant evidence, beat out confessions, and coerce suspects into entrapping their friends. In other words, these kids have their lives taken away so some goons in uniform could line their pockets and look good in front of their bosses.

Keeping citizens sober instead of keeping them alive, the government has outlawed methadone, a substitute for heroin globally-recognized for helping wean fiends off the hard stuff. That hasn't stopped Russians soaring higher than Sputnik: since 2019, deadly overdoses have doubled.

And yet, most Russians support zero tolerance. That's unsurprising, of course. Around the world - and Russia's not unique in this - ignorance is behind the war on drugs. That's slowly changing in the US, at least when it comes to cannabis and psychedelics... opioids, not so much (see the recent epidemic of cops fainting like southern belles at the touch of fentanyl). But at least you Amerikanskis can have the discussion. In Russia, we cannot get accurate information because of laws surrounding "narco-propaganda". You've heard of the infamous "gay propaganda" laws, right? Same thing. What this means in practice is NGOs are fined for giving safety advice to addicts, saying anything other than "drugs are bad" is banned, and you can even land in trouble for having a hemp leaf drawn on your hat. While Russia's not a free country, the Kremlin does pay attention to public opinion. But public opinion won't change until we know all the facts.

But the law is the law and must be obeyed, right? Legality is not a synonym for morality. Slavery and the Holocaust were both legal; helping Jews and runaway slaves was not. Breaking bad laws is not a sign of bad character.

The question is, should human beings be locked in cages for having a completely non-toxic plant that helps them relax among their possessions, yes or no? Nothing else matters. Could Brittney have used better judgement? Maybe. Probably. But the fact is (prisoner exchanges aside) a young woman is now being deprived of nearly a decade of her life and that shouldn't happen, period. That doesn't change because she crossed an imaginary line on the ground.

But while Russia's drug laws are cruel, Americans should do some soul-searching themselves. Brittney Griner must be freed, but it would be absurd for Joe Biden, one of the architects of the drug war, to expend so much energy on one woman halfway across the planet while there are still prisoners languishing for life for marijuana in Mississippi and Louisiana - a situation he has direct influence over, as President of the United States, but does nothing about. In fact, federal arrests for cannabis rose by 25% in the first year of Biden's administration. There are at least 19 states in the US where people are locked up over pot. Let them all go.

And stop victim-blaming Brittney Griner.