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D.C. activists rally for Brittney Griner at Russian Embassy

Cannabis advocates pop green smoke and guard their giant inflatable cigarette as they stage a protest against Brittney Griner's imprisonment in front of the Russian Embassy in D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Cannabis advocates held a “smoke out” Thursday outside the Russian Embassy in Northwest Washington, where protesters smoked marijuana and demanded the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been imprisoned in Russia since February.

Adam Eidinger, a longtime cannabis activist and co-founder of DC Marijuana Justice, which worked to legalize the drug in the city, said he planned the protest as a direct response to a Russian court’s rejection of Griner’s appeal of her more than nine-year prison sentence on drug charges Tuesday.

Griner’s arrest also came one week before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, a war that Eidinger said he was also protesting Thursday.

“Just as it’s unacceptable for Americans to sit behind bars for simple possession of cannabis, it’s absolutely unacceptable for an American sitting in a Russian gulag,” Eidinger said. “We feel compelled to protest the Russian Federation and President Putin, who’s clearly using an American citizen as a pawn in his war against Ukraine.”

Protesters symbolically chose 4:20 p.m. to gather outside the embassy clutching a cannabis plant in front of a 50-foot inflatable joint with “Free Griner and Russians from Putin” written in Russian on one side and “Free 420 prisoners” on the other.

Griner spent her 32nd birthday earlier this month in detainment, as family, friends, athletes and coaches launched a “#WeAreBG” campaign seeking her return to the United States.

Her wife, Cherelle, said in an Oct. 6 interview with “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King that she had been able to speak with Griner just twice via phone since she was detained. The second call, she said, was “disturbing,” leaving her in tears for days.

“It was the most disturbing phone call I’ve ever experienced,” Cherelle Griner said in the interview. “You could hear that she was not okay.”

Brittney Griner may go to a Russian penal colony. Here’s what you need to know.

Griner was attempting to enter Russia on Feb. 17 at the Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow, where she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, when she was arrested. She was accused of carrying vape cartridges containing 0.702 grams of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. Griner eventually pleaded guilty to carrying the cannabis oil.

Griner, a 6-foot-9 center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, testified during her trial that she uses cannabis oil in the United States as prescribed by her doctors to treat chronic pain. She told the court that she knew carrying cannabis into Russia was illegal, but in her rush to pack, she said, she did not realize the cartridges were in her baggage.

In the United States, cannabis is legal for recreational adult use in D.C., two territories and 19 states. It is on the ballot in five more states next month. Thirty-seven states, three territories and the District allow the medical use of marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Griner appeared Tuesday in court via video link from detention outside Moscow and spoke through an interpreter. “I want to apologize for this mistake,” she said. “I did not intend to do this, but I understand the charges brought against me.”

Speaking on Aug. 4, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner said she had no intention of breaking Russian law after a small amount of cannabis oil was found in her bags. (Video: The Washington Post)

Griner’s attorneys said they would speak with her about next steps and that they intend to use “all the available legal tools.” Once the appeal process is over, Griner is set to be transferred to a penal colony, where people who are incarcerated are required to perform labor during their sentence.

The U.S. government characterizes her arrest as a “wrongful detainment” and the White House condemned the court’s decision Tuesday.

Eidinger also joined protesters outside the White House on Monday, demanding that President Biden use his executive authority to release people incarcerated on nonviolent marijuana-related convictions. The protesters said that Biden’s announcement earlier this month that he would grant mass pardons for anyone convicted of a federal crime for simply possessing marijuana did not go far enough, pointing to White House officials’ acknowledgment that the pardons won’t result in anyone being released from prison.

“It’s time for the public to rise up and defend Brittney Griner,” Eidinger said. “. . . If we’re going to fight for prisoners to be released in the United States, we need to fight for them to be released everywhere, internationally.”

Maite Fernández Simon and Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.