With growing tensions present in the war between Russia and Ukraine, the Russians still refuse to make headlines by continually putting their moral compass on full display. On 5 August 2022, American citizen and WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian Court to nine (9) years prison on drug charges, after finding her guilty of narcotics possession and smuggling for travelling to Russia with two cannabis-infused vape cartridges.
Although Griner has a medical marijuana card permitting use in Arizona, to help her cope with her injuries from playing, personal cannabis use is illegal in all circumstances in Russia. This seemingly harsh penalty has been denounced by prominent figures such as Lebron James and even US President, Joe Biden, who has proposed a prisoner swap with Russia, to free Brittney Griner. The Russians, of course, declined the offer. With this blockbuster story comes questions surrounding the severity of penalties for marijuana, especially for countries like Australia that still have it criminalized.
How would the same offence be adjudicated in Australia, and specifically Queensland? Would you have to spend nine (9) years eating the same meals everyday while wearing a jumpsuit?
While Australia does have stricter cannabis laws than other western countries (ie. Canada and most states in America), it is much more lenient on the issue than Russia. Nonetheless, cannabis is regarded as a schedule 2 dangerous drug in Queensland under the Drugs Misuse Regulation 1987. Now, there are obviously different offences in relation to cannabis and your purpose of using it. Trafficking and supplying the drug would result in much more punitive measures in comparison to possession, where the latter is far more common for the average person.
Possession is defined in Section 1 of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld) as “having control in any place whatever, whether for the use or benefit of the person of whom the term is used or of another person and although another person has the actual possession or custody of the thing in question”. In layman’s terms, this means having the drug on your person, or having knowledge of the drug’s presence elsewhere, even if you are not currently in physical possession.
With this definition in mind, how would Brittney Griner’s offence likely have been handled by a Queensland Court?
First, it would have to be determined what her purpose was with regards to the usage of the cannabis and whether or not the cannabis has been prescribed by a Doctor. In Russia, they deemed Griner to be in possession while simultaneously holding the intention to smuggle the drugs into the country, which is ultimately why her sentence was so harsh. She brought in 2 cartridges for personal use, both together totaling 0.702 grams.
In Australia, the actual offence for possession under the Drugs Misuse Regulation carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. However, this is extremely unlikely to be imposed, as jail terms for small quantities of drugs, particularly for first time offending, are rare.
To highlight this point, the case of R v Christodoulou  was heard in the Queensland Court of Appeal regarding a sentence of 9 months imprisonment (parole after three months) and whether this was manifestly excessive. In this case, the defendant was charged with possession where commerciality was also alleged. Given the total amount of cannabis in his possession was 500 grams. Yes, 500 grams of cannabis. Due to this excessive amount, the Court accepted that there was a reasonable suspicion there was a commercial purpose for the possession, since most individuals would take years to use this much cannabis. Even with this large quantity of cannabis considered, the defendant still only served three months in prison. A much lesser sentence than the one imposed by Russia on Brittney Griner of nine years, for two (2) cannabis-infused vape cartridges.
This illustrates how Australia, if placed in the same position, would likely have taken a much more merciful approach to Brittney Griner, than Russia did.
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