Review: “How to Fix a Drug Scandal”

Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He reviews the Netflix series How to Fix a Drug Scandal, a mini-series released earlier this year. We also wanted to point out an article from The Conversation, a site that, like Points, offers academic insights on contemporary and historical events. Did you know that the Mother’s Day flowers you might have bought last Sunday are potentially tied to the US war on drugs? You can read more about that here

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How to Fix a Drug Scandal is a four-part docuseries directed by Erin Lee Carr streaming on Netflix. The scandal centers on two chemists: Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak who were employed by the state of Massachusetts to perform chemical analysis on drugs in criminal cases, verifying their authenticity. The two pursued their crimes quite differently. Dookhan was good at falsifying reports. She did it through so-called “dry labbing” or visual testing: say police sent an evidence bag filled with a white powder to her office. Maybe the substance was table salt or maybe it was cocaine. If it was table salt rather than cocaine and you were the defendant in the case, you definitely didn’t want the evidence to be analyzed by Dookhan because the drug certificate submitted was going to say cocaine. Was there a specific reason Dookhan did this? Not really. We know she didn’t care about accuracy or the real-world effect of her actions, which had devastating effects on the lives of individuals and their families. 

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She did, however, care about what prosecutors thought of her. In fact, she identified with them. Her email exchanges make that clear, the tone sounding more like a cheerleader than an impartial chemist peering into a microscope, simply writing down results. This relationship with prosecutors was reciprocal. They loved her too. And it is easy to understand why. She could, after all, do something pretty remarkable. Like magic, she transformed some innocuous substance, say, Pixie Stik residue and with a little abracadabra—poof: sugar miraculously became cocaine or heroin (at least on paper) or whatever substance prosecutors preferred it to be. It was a neat little trick (illusion, Michael!). And we can understand why prosecutors didn’t want to ask too many questions about it.

Lying and exaggerating were routine for Dookhan. She lied on her resume. She lied about a master’s degree. She lied about a PhD from Harvard. She lied about working for the FBI. These lies continued as soon as she became an employee–and they explain her downfall. Over the years, her colleagues came to nickname her “superwoman” and she leaned a little too hard into the super part. Her output was about the same as that performed by five people, which was suspicious. She was processing 500 samples compared the typical 150 for most employees. When control of her lab was transferred to state police, she got caught. All that had happened was they created basic protocols like signing things in and out of the evidence. They realized almost immediately tests she claimed to do had never been signed out of the evidence locker. 

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Farak was the more sympathetic of the two. She did the work. She wasn’t malicious. She didn’t collude with prosecutors. Did she ingest LSD, smoke crack, and then crawl on the bathroom floor hallucinating right before doing test analysis? Yes. I’m not saying she was a model employee or someone whose tests the court should’ve relied on, but there is something about her story, more personal and tragic compared to Dookhan’s, which was much more about self-aggrandizing and petty deception. 

Farak had long-standing mental health issues and a curiosity about drugs; not the kind of person to place in a lab setting with unfettered access to them without supervision. And that was what happened. Almost immediately after she got the job, she started using drugs. At her trial, she told prosecutors why. She said ever since reading about methamphetamine’s positive side-effects—elevated mood, energy boost, enhanced concentrated—she wanted to try it. 

In the lab, there were two kinds of drugs: evidence and controls. Controls or “standards” were the chemicals referenced to compare against the substances police sent to the lab. The state purchased “standards” from pharmaceutical companies, so they were of the highest quality. When Farak needed to do a test, she walked over to the refrigerated unit (never locked, by the way) plunged a little dropper inside and got whatever she needed. 

This was how she was able to confirm her belief that she would enjoy methamphetamine. She did like it. And for a while, everything was going swimmingly. She was praised for being “meticulous,” “thorough,” and “dedicated to her work.” But it wasn’t going to last. After a few years, she had exhausted most of the lab’s methamphetamine standard by herself. From there things went from bad to worse. 

Her career played out like you imagine it would had Hunter S. Thompson ever been employed at a drug lab would. Instead of the comedic episode of huffing ether on the Vegas Strip, her climax was sad. It culminated in casual crack-smoking in the lab, the ladies’ room, and in her car throughout the day. Excerpts from testimony revealed she had not only stolen cocaine from evidence but was also whipping up batches of crack at her workstation, doing so in the same casual manner most people might cook brownies. It is hard to call what happened an “investigation” in any proper sense. It mostly involved opening her desk drawers. That was all the incriminating evidence needed: a crack-pipe made from lab equipment, unmarked bits of cocaine, and fake drugs she made to replace the real ones she stole. 

However, the story within a story was the way the district attorneys, including the Attorney General, sought to minimize Farak’s arrest. They claimed her drug use began the last year of her employment, denying defendants the right to contest their cases. Everyone from the police to the judiciary to top prosecutors for the state covered up and hid exculpatory documents found the day of Farak’s arrest—including a worksheet from a psychologist that revealed the timeline of her use. Eventually cases and charges were dropped because of the work of a local attorney, Luke Ryan, and a team of lawyers working at the ACLU. The film ends on a celebratory note—”justice wins”—with even some bottle popping to add a final punctuation mark.

The real lesson is bleaker. Its message is that, if you want to commit crimes, lots of crimes, have one of two things (preferably both): wealth and power. After all, “our criminal justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”

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