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Griner’s defense documents medical cannabis prescription at trial

WNBA star Brittney Griner is inside a defendant's cage during a hearing at the Khimki Court in the town of Khimki outside Moscow on July 15. (Photo for The Washington Post)

RIGA, Latvia — Lawyers for WNBA star Brittney Griner told a Russian court Friday that doctors in the United States prescribed her medical cannabis for chronic pain, as the basketball player faced her fourth day in a trial on drug charges that could send her to prison for up to 10 years.

The brief hearing began shortly after 10 a.m. local time; Griner entered court wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and was placed in the defendant’s cage, as is usual. She held up a recent photograph of WNBA All-Star players all wearing jerseys with her number, 42.

Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the United States and UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, has pleaded guilty to carrying 0.702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage when she was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport a week before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. She told the court she accidentally packed the two vape cartridges and did not intend to break Russian law.

Amid Griner trial, Russia warns U.S. against pressure for prisoner swap

As part of the presentation of evidence for the defense, one of Griner’s attorneys, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin & Partners, read a medical certificate indicating that Griner was prescribed medical cannabis by U.S. doctors as part of treatment for chronic pain and other conditions. The trial was then adjourned until July 26.

After the hearing, Blagovolina told journalists that Thursday’s session, in which the director and captain of Griner’s Russian team gave character evidence in her defense, had been trying for her.

“She is very tired; yesterday was a very emotional day for her. It was difficult for her,” Blagovolina said.

She told The Washington Post that Griner accidentally brought vape cartridges into Russia containing cannabis oil prescribed by an Arizona doctor.

She added that the defense team would spell out more details of Griner’s medical issues in future hearings. On Friday, the defense presented numerous medical certificates and the results of anti-doping tests, which indicated that no traces of banned substances were found.

Griner’s fate is caught up in the diplomatic crisis between Washington and Moscow over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, and her supporters are hoping the two countries will reach a deal on a prisoner exchange. Her trial has been held in unusual secrecy, with journalists allowed only limited access and fully barred from the proceedings on Thursday.

On Friday, however, journalists were given access to the hearing.

Friday’s hearing was the fourth day in a trial that her defense team expects will involve up to five hearings. Her sentencing date is unknown, but Russian officials have stated that no discussions on a prisoner exchange will occur before the trial concludes.

The U.S. State Department says Griner has been wrongfully detained, with the White House describing the circumstances of that detention as “intolerable.”

Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said the United States is committed at the highest levels to bring home Griner and all Americans wrongfully detained overseas.

“I will only say that in the hearings yesterday and today, what became very clear was the tremendous amount of respect and admiration both in the United States and here in Russia where Ms. Griner has been playing basketball for seven years, not only for her professional achievements but for her character and integrity,” she said.

The outcry over Griner’s arrest has eclipsed the U.S. public’s concern over Paul Whelan, a Marine veteran and security consultant serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of espionage in a closed trial in 2020. He says he was framed.

Given Griner’s fame as a Phoenix Mercury center and entreaties for the Biden administration to secure her release, Russia has made the most of its leverage, repeatedly warning that public pressure will not help her cause. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova urged U.S. authorities “not to exploit this sensitive matter affecting the fates of certain individuals, and we advise them to abandon futile attempts to pressure us.”

Washington, she said, should “work through established channels. It simply won’t work any other way.”

There is growing speculation about a possible swap involving Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving 25 years in the United States for conspiring to sell arms to a foreign terrorist group and conspiring to kill U.S. citizens. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said his top priority is to secure the release of Griner, Whelan and other Americans he said are wrongly imprisoned overseas.

Griner recently wrote to Biden begging him not to forget her and other detainees, saying, “I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

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