Brittney Griner Is a Rallying Cry for the LGBTQ+ Community to Fight for Cannabis Criminal Justice Reform

·3 min read
Mike Mattina/Getty
Mike Mattina/Getty

As we enter into Pride month, Brittney Griner—a Black lesbian and WNBA All-Star—enters into her fourth month of wrongful detainment in Russia. Griner’s case has shed light on the continued criminalization of cannabis—an injustice that is rooted in the “War on Drugs” both at home and abroad. It should also galvanize fans, public officials, and LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations to use their voices to fight against marijuana prohibition, a policy that’s rooted in racism and homophobia.

To be fair, as outrage over Brittney’s situation has grown, organizations like the National LGBTQ Task Force, GLSEN, Human Rights Campaign, and the National Black Justice Coalition condemned this act by Russia as racist and homophobic and put out statements of support for Brittney. However, most of these statements left out a timely criticism of the global “War on Drugs” and the way it has criminalized cannabis, the substance for which Griner was allegedly detained.

It’s easy to attribute Griner’s detention to draconian rules enforced by inhumane Russian authorities, but many Americans don’t realize that cannabis enforcement remains a defining part of the United States criminal legal system too, with over 350,000 arrests for marijuana law violations in 2021 alone. In fact, Griner could’ve been arrested and sentenced to jail time in at least 19 states, and—depending on the amount of hashish oil in her possession (currently unknown)—she could’ve been at risk of receiving a similar sentence under U.S. federal drug trafficking guidelines. This burden of cannabis criminalization falls disproportionately on Black LGBTQ+ folks like Griner. According to a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), “sexual minority” adults were at least twice as likely to have used marijuana within the past year than the general population at 43.6 percent and 17.9 percent respectively.

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Cannabis is often used by LGBTQ+ individuals to cope with discrimination or other adverse events, and selling those drugs can frequently become a means of survival. According to Black and Pink’s 2015 National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey, Black respondents were nearly 20 percent more likely to have participated in the drug trade than their white counterparts. This is indicative of the disproportionate rate at which Black people are arrested in the U.S. for cannabis which is, on average, 3.7 times higher than that of white people even though distribution and consumption levels are similar.

According to Prison Policy Initiative analysis, gay, lesbian, and bisexual (LGB) individuals were 2.25 times as likely to be arrested than straight individuals with the disparity being driven largely by lesbian and bisexual women, who are 4 times as likely to be arrested than straight women. This translates to a higher incarcerated population as evident from the National Inmate Survey which found that LGB people are incarcerated at a rate over three times that of the total adult population. Their incarceration often comes with longer sentences, disproportionate experiences of inhumane treatment (including sexual victimization), and overrepresentation in probation and parole that can lead to reincarceration.

These experiences are further exacerbated for transgender folks. According to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 1 in 6 trans people have experienced incarceration in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 trans people who have had police contact report experiences of violence. These experiences are especially true for Black trans individuals of which nearly half (47 percent) have been incarcerated and 38 percent have dealt with police violence. These disparities continue behind bars where 37 percent of transgender women experience assault compared to their cisgender counterparts

This is the time for LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations to join together with cannabis criminal justice reform organizations, like the Last Prisoner Project, to take unified action in fighting for the release, record-sealing, and reentry of individuals impacted by the unjust enforcement of cannabis prohibition. By spreading awareness, offering support, and taking direct action, LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations can help ensure the protection of their communities from the harmful effects of cannabis criminalization and the war already raging in the U.S…the “War on Drugs.”

#FreeBrittneyGriner

Mikelina Belaineh is the Director of Impact with the Last Prisoner Project and Stephen Post is a Campaign Strategist with the Last Prisoner Project.

The Last Prisoner Project (LPP) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cannabis-related criminal justice reform. As the United States moves away from the criminalization of cannabis, giving rise to a major new industry, there remains the fundamental injustice inflicted upon those who have suffered under America’s unjust policy of cannabis prohibition. Through intervention, advocacy, and awareness campaigns, the Last Prisoner Project works to redress the past and continuing harms of these inhumane and ineffective laws and policies. Visit www.lastprisonerproject.org or text FREEDOM to 24365 to learn more.

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