If you ever wondered whether Breaking Bad could happen in real life, look no further than Netflix’s newest true crime docuseries, How to Fix a Drug Scandal. The series, which premiered April 1, follows two Massachusetts-based chemists who bungled lab results for nine whole years at two separate drug laboratories. As a result, more than 40,000 cases were forced to be dismissed. The chemists’ misconduct “totally turned the system on its head" and provided more proof that the U.S.'s War on Drugs can do more harm than good.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal’s four episodes break down how chemists Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan tampered with evidence from tens of thousands of cases. Dookhan was convicted of falsifying test results, while Farak was sent to prison for using the test materials herself, getting high at work and even in court.
Who Is Sonja Farak?
For about nine years, Farak used the drugs that she was supposed to be testing for criminal cases. She also used the Amherst state drug lab in which she worked to create and steal drugs. Farak was addicted, and it didn’t help that the lab had little to no oversight. According to Rolling Stone, which covered the Farak and Dookhan cases in 2018, Farak was easily able to dig into the seizures of cocaine cops brought in for testing, smoke crack in the bathroom, and cook up more when nobody was looking — and more often than not, nobody was looking. In order to replace the drugs Farak had used herself, she'd often add ersatz powder to the samples.
Rolling Stone and the new Netflix doc detail that Farak struggled with demons many years before she took the job at the Amherst lab. As a teenager, she nearly died by suicide and was also hospitalized later in college. Farak graduated from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and landed a job as a drug lab chemist at the Amherst crime lab of the Massachusetts State Police. Even as an adult, she suffered with mental health issues; she turned to the readily-available stockpile of drugs at work.
Farak plead guilty and was convicted of tampering with evidence, unlawful possession, and stealing cocaine from the lab in 2014. The chemist ended up getting an 18-month sentence and five years of probation.
Who Is Annie Dookhan?
Chemist Annie Dookhan was once called “superwoman” for her work ethic and efforts to help stop illegal drug use. Then, it was discovered Dookhan purposely contaminated tens of thousands of drug tests in the Boston drug lab in which she worked. The chemist started working at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston in 2004. Over the course of eight years, Dookhan processed around 60,000 drug samples. According to CBS News, 11,000 people were sent to jail because of her analysis. Additionally, the Washington Post reports 21,587 drug cases had to be dismissed.
Dookhan was the most prolific chemist at the lab. CBS News reported that Dookhan would test around 500 samples a month. Comparatively, her coworkers were able to test between 50 and 150. Dookhan’s lab supervisor grew suspicious of how many cases Dookhan was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time and ran an audit on her. However, Dookhan’s supervisor didn’t find anything wrong.
It all started to fall apart in June 2011, when she was suspended from lab duties after getting caught forging paperwork. In March 2012, Dookhan resigned. Aside from contaminating drug lab work so that it favored the prosecution, Dookhan also fabricated her advanced degrees, her job titles, salaries she earned, what was going on with her alleged divorce — she even lied on her resume, saying she had graduated “magna cum laude” from Boston Latin Academy. The school claims that that distinction isn’t something they offer.
So what was Dookhan’s motive in all this? She wanted to appear extremely hard-working, and essentially found herself in a web of lies to maintain her act. According to the Washington Post, in 2013, Dookhan plead guilty to 27 counts of “misleading investigators, tampering with evidence and filing false reports.” The chemist was given three years in prison and additional probation.
Why How to Fix A Drug Scandal's True Story Matters
Aside from the fact that not one, but two chemists, were able to easily tamper with criminal evidence, How to Fix a Drug Scandal exposes huge flaws in the justice system and the U.S.’s continued efforts to fuel the War on Drugs initiative. Because not only did two individuals' misconduct affect countless convictions, but some of the damning evidence was held back, which makes this whole thing an even bigger issue.
According to the legal director of the ACLU Massachusetts Matt Segal, who is interviewed in the series as one of the lead attorneys for thousands who were wrongfully convicted, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office participated in an alleged cover-up. They “claimed [Farak’s] misconduct lasted under five months. All the while, they had crucial evidence showing that the misconduct was more severe. That means thousands of people were convicted based on bad evidence — and the AGO hid that information from them and the courts," he claims.
In 2017 and 2018, respectively, district attorneys were able to dismiss thousands of cases that used drug analysis work done by both Farak and Dookhan — a huge victory for those who were wrongfully convicted on the basis of contaminated evidence. And those cases are exactly why this story matters.