Brittney Griner is a call to the LGBTQ+ community to fight for cannabis criminal justice reform

As we enter Pride month, Brittney Griner — a black lesbian and WNBA All-Star — enters her fourth month of wrongful imprisonment in Russia. Griner’s case has shed light on the ongoing criminalization of cannabis – an injustice that has its roots in the “war on drugs” at home and abroad. It should also get fans, officials, and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to speak out to fight against marijuana prohibition, a policy rooted in racism and homophobia.

To be fair, as outrage over Brittney’s situation has mounted, organizations such as the National LGBTQ Task Force, GLSEN, Human Rights Campaign and the National Black Justice Coalition have condemned Russia’s act as racist and homophobic and issued statements of support for Brittney. However, most of those statements left out a timely critique of the global “war on drugs” and the way it has criminalized cannabis, the substance for which Griner was allegedly imprisoned.

It’s easy to attribute Griner’s imprisonment to draconian rules enforced by inhumane Russian authorities, but what many Americans don’t realize is that cannabis enforcement also remains a defining part of the United States’ criminal justice system, with over 350,000 arrests for marijuana-related violations law in 2021 alone. In fact, Griner could have been arrested and sentenced to prison in at least 19 states, and — depending on the amount of hash oil in her possession (currently unknown) — she could have faced a similar sentence under US federal guidelines for the drug trafficking. This burden of criminalizing cannabis disproportionately falls on Black LGBTQ+ people like Griner. According to a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), adults from “sexual minorities” were at least twice as likely to have used marijuana in the past year, at 43.6 percent and 17.9 percent, respectively general population.

Cannabis is commonly used by LGBTQ+ people to deal with discrimination or other adverse events, and selling these drugs can often become a means of survival. According to Black and Pink’s 2015 National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey, black respondents were nearly 20 percent more likely than their white counterparts to have been involved in drug trafficking. This points to the disproportionate rate at which blacks are arrested for cannabis in the US, which is on average 3.7 times higher than whites, although the distribution and levels of use are similar.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative analysis, gay, lesbian and bisexual (LGB) people were 2.25 times more likely to be arrested than straight people, with the disparity being mainly caused by lesbian and bisexual women, who were four times as likely to be arrested is high as in heterosexual persons in heterosexual women. This leads to a higher incarceration population, according to the National Inmate Survey, which found LGB people are three times more likely to be incarcerated than the adult population as a whole. Their incarceration is often associated with longer prison sentences, disproportionate experience of inhuman treatment (including sexual victimization), and over-representation on probation and parole, which can lead to re-incarceration.

“Cannabis is commonly used by LGBTQ+ people to deal with discrimination or other adverse events, and selling these drugs can often become a means of survival.”

These experiences are exacerbated for transgender people. 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 contact with the police report experiencing violence. These experiences are particularly true for black trans people, of whom nearly half (47 percent) have been imprisoned and 38 percent have faced police violence. These disparities continue behind bars, where 37 percent of transgender women are victims of assault compared to their cisgender counterparts

This is the time for LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations to join forces with cannabis criminal justice reform organizations like the Last Prisoner Project to fight together for the release, sealing of records and re-entry of those caught by the unjust enforcement of cannabis prohibition are affected. By raising 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 US – the “War on Drugs”.

#FreeBrittneyGriner

Mikelina Belaineh is Director of Impact at The Last Prisoner Project and Stephen Post is Campaign Strategist at The Last Prisoner Project.

The Last Prisoner Project (LPP) is a non-profit organization dedicated to reforming the cannabis-related criminal justice system. As the United States moves away from the criminalization of cannabis and creates a major new industry, the fundamental injustice being inflicted on those who have suffered from America’s unjust cannabis prohibition policies remains. Through interventions, advocacy, and awareness campaigns, The Last Prisoner Project works to repair the past and ongoing harms of these inhumane and ineffective laws and policies. Visit www.lastprisonerproject.org or text FREEDOM to 24365 for more information.

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