The War On Drugs – Cassie Sainsbury. It’s a name that has quickly risen from obscurity to one synonymous with idiocy. It’s a story that seems to be repeated in the news on a regular basis. A young life, be it man or woman, is caught overseas with copious amounts of illegal drugs. The legal system, and indeed the Western lifestyle that afforded them the luxury of globetrotting travel, is helpless. The hammer falls on individuals who face serious gaol time in a country where prison rights rank low on the priority list. Collectively, we shake our heads and mutter under our breath, ‘what fools’. We judge and condemn for their behaviour. Insulated in our homes, our jobs, our lives, the easiest thing to do is to point the finger at these individuals and say, “I would never do something like that”.

At just 22, Cassie Sainsbury waits, in Bogota’s crowded el Buen Pastor women’s prison, with a potential sentence of 20 years before her. Her alleged crime – attempting to smuggle 5.8 kilograms of cocaine through Bogota International Airport. At first thought, I’m inclined to agree with her harshest critics. I want to distance myself from her. The idea of spending the best years of your life trapped in a South American prison too hellish to imagine. Like many of you reading this, I want to wash my hands of this young fool. But in 2016 I spent the better part of a month in Colombia. During that time, I saw first-hand the prevalence of drugs in Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena and the normality that comes with that prevalence. For her association with drugs in Colombia, I want to think Cassie Sainsbury’s name is synonymous with idiocy. But something about that black and white verdict just doesn’t feel right.

Bogota under grey skies

Bogota, a city of 8 million people, is enticing and alluring.


Colombia’s War On Drugs

To make a very clear distinction between Cassie Sainsbury and I, I have never been a drug mule. And if that sentence doesn’t make my Mum proud then I don’t know what will. What Cassie Sainsbury has done differs vastly from my personal experiences in Colombia. At the very best she was naïve in allowing a stranger to provide packages for her flight home without checking them herself. And at the very worst she knowingly accepted cocaine with the intent to return it to Australia. Both versions put her in a unique position that few of us will ever face.

And still, while not faced with her current troubles, we all have a set of personal morals. Let’s assume for a moment she chose to accept the role of drug mule in return for payment. If you were in her shoes, with that same offer, what would you do? It’s a seemingly simple hypothetical, but having spent time in Bogota myself I can tell you that situations in which you’d remove yourself here in Australia become normal in Colombia. And as normalisation occurs it becomes more difficult to distinguish between what is morally right and wrong. So, while I haven’t loaded up my baggage with cocaine, I have watched drug culture become normal before my eyes. I’ve watched it permeate my Colombian experience. The difference between Cassie Sainsbury and I is not that she is a monster and I am not. It is that she was desensitised to the reality of drugs, and I was not.

Atletico Nacionale football

My experiences involving the normalisation of drugs in Colombia were, thankfully, much more benign than Cassie Sainsbury’s. While in Medellin I managed to snag a scalped ticket to see the local side, and South American football giant, Atletico Nacionale. While lining up to enter the stadium it became clear that the police presence was heavy. More akin to a small army than stadium security, with a powerful sniffer dog presence to boot.

While sniffer dogs are present here in Australia I’ve never actually seen anyone get caught. So, it was shocking when one of these fearsome German shepherds snapped at an unsuspecting local, with the watching police quickly encircling him. Surely, being caught by a sniffer dog in Colombia meant this poor bloke was fucked. And as the police grabbed him I felt sorry for him, as he would undoubtedly miss more than just the game with where they would take him. Only he went nowhere. The police pointed to a nearby bin as their suspect produced several small bags of white powder – unquestionably cocaine. He wasn’t punished, arrested or even sent away from the game. He simply threw his cocaine in the bin and took his place back in the line.

This pattern was to repeat right up until I made it inside the stadium. Our long single file line shuffled forward and as we did the dogs consistently found new targets. Punishment though, was conspicuously absent. Everyone just threw their contraband into the bin and returned to the line. There was something incredibly surreal about the scene to me, but apparently so normal to everyone else. Teenagers around me looked to cram bags of cocaine down their pants and into their bras. Full grown men tried to find ways to get drugs into the stadium which vibrated to the never-ending chanting and drumming of the forty thousand people inside. And all the while the heavily armed police in the form of roving swat teams sought to confiscate their drugs from them. Not to seize as evidence, not as reason to arrest them. But to throw them in a faded, plastic green bin and send them back to the line.


Inked and Abroad at the grave of Pablo Escobar

Spending time at the gravesite of the ‘King of Cocaine’, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.

Cassie Sainsbury’s experience with drugs is much more hands on of course. But it is not unique. Colombia isn’t all salsa and Cerveza’s. There is a darker side. And it’s in this darkness that Cassie Sainsbury was pulled, and where she remains for the foreseeable future. It’s also here where most people can place a moral wall. It’s easy to distance ourselves from the suffering of another human when a disqualifying factor like drugs is brought in. In this case, 5.8 kilograms of cocaine. We accept life will be hard for her. But, we tell ourselves, she only has herself to blame.

But is that strictly accurate?

Some history is needed to answer this question. Specifically, the history of Cocaine. Coca leaves, the base plant used to chemically manufacture cocaine, have long been a part of Colombian life. But it was not until the 1960’s and 70’s when worldwide demand for psychoactive drugs skyrocketed that the drug trade really began in Colombia. The United States, due to its economy, geographical position and lifestyle factors, then became the key importer to Colombia’s rapidly growing exporting of Cocaine.

While the United States sought to cut off this toxic influence, ushering in the start of the War on Drugs, a succession of cartels found ways to not only survive against US intervention, but thrive. The Medellin Cartel, Cali Cartel, Norte de Valle Cartel and North Coast Cartel were, at various times, funnelling billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine from cheap jungle laboratories into mainland America. The product was then sold for 50 times what it cost to manufacture.

While the perceived successes or failures of this War on Drugs can be debated, what remains are the facts. The value of Colombia’s cocaine trade is valued at $10 billion a year. While Colombia’s production of cocaine accounts for 43% of the world’s supply. These figures are staggering.

Pablo Esconar's grave in Medellin

Pablo Escobar’s grave at the Cemetario Jardins Montesacro, in Medellin.

With this history in mind, there are two reasons to think the War on Drugs in Colombia will never be successful. The first is cultural. Coca leaves have been grown, chewed and cultivated by native Colombians for generations. To the point that Colombian mummies dating back 3000 years show evidence of Coca consumption. In the countless generations since, the production and use of the Coca leaf has become a part of Colombian trade, medicine, religion and life. While it’s modern bastardization into cocaine causes problems, to think the role of the Coca leaf in Colombian life will ever recede is ignorant. Coca is here to stay, and as long as it is grown, so is cocaine.

cocaine on coca leaves

From Coca leaf to Cocaine

The second reason the War on Drugs will never end is simple. People like taking drugs. Current estimates put worldwide cocaine use at around 4%. Seems like a small number, right? Except on this scale that amounts to 300 million people. Cocaine is in worldwide demand and so the supply will continue unabated despite the desires of governments to stop it.

Is Cassie Sainsbury still a monster who deserves to be locked up for her heinous crime? Or is she a victim of an attitude to drugs that has reached a tipping point? Whatever your thoughts on this are, one thing is for sure. She is not the cause of the War on Drugs, but an inevitable symptom. Drug culture and Colombia are, rightly or wrongly, intrinsically tied. It only takes one look at the current Netflix hit Narcos to see how art has begun to imitate life. The country produces cocaine en masse, the locals use it widely and it is sold dirt cheap to travellers. It quickly loses its lustre as the product of the devil. Instead, it becomes passé. It’s old news. It’s easy to get, easy to travel around with, and a completely normal thing to bring in and out of your Colombian experience.

Police check in Colombia

Being randomly searched on the street in Cartagena, Colombia. The scrutiny towards tourists far outweighs that towards locals.

While I don’t know the specifics of Cassie Sainsbury’s case, to the point she might be the next Pablo Escobar, I suspect she’s just a silly little girl who grew up with the duelling dichotomy. One – drugs are evil and no good person should go near them. And two – drugs are widely available and widely used worldwide. In reconciling these two realities, she made an incredibly poor judgement call to make some extra money. And while I can lament that choice, if it is indeed what has happened, I’d much rather lambast the War on Drugs culture of the last 50 years that has started making that choice a reality.

In the context of the half century failure of the global War on Drugs, and when you get to Colombia and see first-hand the way drugs are viewed and treated by locals, it’s easy to understand how Cassie Sainsbury was desensitised to them. If everyone buys them, uses them, even sneaks them into a local football match, then why shouldn’t she pack them in her bag and move them from A to B.

I’m not saying what she did was right. And I’m not making excuses on her behalf. All I’m doing is pointing out the way drugs have become part of both the Colombian and global experience. And pointing out how they lose their fear factor for foreigners when they are so flippantly dealt with in contexts where locals are caught with them. Whatever dots you want to connect from those is up to you.

As for my view. I don’t think it’s too outrageous to say that we judge people as individuals without recognising the culture that creates them. In Colombia’s War on Drugs, that means cocaine is seen as casual, not criminal. I can see how Cassie Sainsbury’s decision exists within the Colombian War on Drugs zeitgeist. I’m inclined to empathise with her, rather than demonize her. Cocaine is in excess in Colombia. And it’s viewing that as a normality that brought about her downfall. We should in turn view her with morality, lest the wagging fingers of judgement one day point at us instead.