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Editorial: The drug lab mess

Sonja Farak, left, stands during her arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, Mass., Tuesday Jan. 22, 2013.  Farak is charged with stealing drugs and tampering with evidence while working as a chemist in the State Crime Lab in Amherst. Farak pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/The Springfield Union News, Don Treeger)

Sonja Farak, left, stands during her arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, Mass., Tuesday Jan. 22, 2013. Farak is charged with stealing drugs and tampering with evidence while working as a chemist in the State Crime Lab in Amherst. Farak pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/The Springfield Union News, Don Treeger) Purchase photo reprints »

The latest case of a chemist charged with evidence-tampering at a Massachusetts drug-testing lab raises old questions of oversight and supervision at the state’s forensic service facilities. The new charges involve a Northampton woman, Sonja Farak, who works at the lab housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Tuesday she was in court denying counts of tampering with evidence, possession of heroin and possession of cocaine.

The low-profile lab in a UMass science building is where most drugs seized by police in western and central Massachusetts are sent to be analyzed and stored. The lab is now temporarily closed while the investigation continues. Farak is on unpaid leave; two other Amherst lab chemists and a supervisor are temporarily reassigned to the lab in Sudbury run by the state police.

The case has drawn attention because it follows on the heels of the scandal involving Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at a state lab in Jamaica Plain. Dookhan stands accused of falsifying drug test results and failing to follow protocol.

The cases are different in important ways, but together raise questions that must be addressed. Dookhan is charged with obstruction of justice. Thousands of criminal cases in the eastern part of the state, for which she handled evidence, are being reviewed. Some people convicted of crimes have been released based on a review of Dookhan’s work.

In announcing the arrest of Farak, Attorney General Martha Coakley noted that she is not charged with falsifying test results. Coakley said the allegations in the Amherst case do not affect the reliability of the lab’s tests or harm defendants. Local district attorneys must be counting on that statement to be accurate.

Coakley said Farak allegedly removed a substance that had tested positive for cocaine and replaced it with a counterfeit substance. Investigators also allege Farak possessed substances that appeared to be cocaine and heroin. According to Coakley’s office, Farak worked for two years at the now-closed lab in Jamaica Plain, before starting work at the Amherst lab in 2004.

The state has already acted to tighten drug lab procedures.

In July, the state police assumed oversight of both the Amherst and Jamaica Plain labs from the state Department of Public Health. The state police were already running 10 labs around the state. Now they run all but one, at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, which is supervised by the Worcester County district attorney.

The goal in having state police take over the DPH labs was to improve efficiency and set uniform standards. The labs under DPH supervision lacked the resources to meet national accreditation standards that the state police lab system had achieved.

In the wake of the Amherst case, an independent review of all the state’s labs is warranted to ensure they are meeting accreditation standards.

The state public health director, who resigned over the Jamaica Plain scandal, blamed it on the actions of a “rogue chemist.” In our opinion, the state must examine its system of accounting for materials processed and look also at how staff are trained, monitored and reviewed.

Staffing is also a question. In the past, the state has looked to cut funds from the labs, even though they are critical to fighting crime and protecting the public.

Last year, for example, the state again considered closing the Amherst lab to save the state $300,000 a year. Western Massachusetts police departments lobbied legislators hard to keep it open, saying that closing the lab would impair their ability to prosecute cases in a timely way and that travel by officers to and from the Jamaica Plain lab would drain resources. The state was essentially proposing to shift its budget problem to cities and towns.

A report last May by state health officials found that the Amherst and Jamaica Plain labs combined had a backlog of nearly 13,000 drug samples, with 9,789 samples that had gone unanalyzed for 50 days or more.

Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, said there were repeated complaints that the Jamaica Plain lab was “grossly understaffed and underfunded.”

Whether we are dealing with a shortage of staff or mismanagement of resources, that is a question that needs to be addressed.

In December, in the wake of the Dookhan scandal, a group of Republican lawmakers called for creation of a new state board to oversee forensic services facilities. The proposal would create a five-member oversight panel consisting of the secretary of public safety, the attorney general, the state inspector general, the head of the state police and one gubernatorial appointee.

With the state police now running all but one of the testing labs, we are not convinced a permanent oversight board is needed. But that sounds like the right group to run a top-to-bottom review of state lab operations.

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