Editorial: State must ensure that drug lab scandals are not repeated

  • Sonja Farak, a former chemist at the state drug lab in Amherst, appears in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton on April 24, 2013, for her arraignment on multiple counts of evidence tampering, drug theft and drug possession. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Last week’s dismissal of about 6,000 cases statewide tainted by the misconduct of former chemist Sonja Farak adds to the accounting of fallout from twin drug lab scandals that rocked Massachusetts during the past five years. The state now must ensure that they never happen again.

The toll now is about 26,000 cases thrown out because of evidence mishandled by chemists Farak, at the former state lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Annie Dookhan, at the former Hinton laboratory in Jamaica Plain. About 20,000 cases tied to Dookhan were tossed in April, the largest such dismissal in U.S. history.

The Northwestern district attorney’s office threw out 1,497 drug convictions between 2004 and 2012 that were based on certificates of analysis signed by Farak, who authorities say was high on drugs nearly every day she worked in the lab at the Morrill Science Center.

“Although we have no reason to believe that anyone was wrongfully convicted in the cases being dismissed, it would not be in the best interests of justice to attempt to reprosecute them,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said.

District attorneys’ offices in western Massachusetts handled most of the cases damaged by Farak and the lax supervision that allowed her to steal drugs while satisfying her own addiction until she was arrested in January 2013. Defendants in those cases waited far too long to have their convictions dismissed, potentially affecting job and housing opportunities.

First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne filed the request with the state Supreme Judicial Court for the dismissals, and wrote that information about the scale and scope of Farak’s crimes was slow in coming. “As of spring 2015, there was no definitive answer as to how far back Farak’s misconduct at the Amherst Lab may have extended,” he wrote.

Defense attorney Luke Ryan, of Northampton, who was instrumental in exposing the extent of Farak’s misconduct, said it was not fair to say that justice had been served because of the time it took to dismiss the convictions. The consequences, including denial of employment, subsidized housing and student loans, are significant, he said.

“This is really a chance for people who are largely rehabilitated to find a better place within the fabric of society,” Ryan said.

Farak pleaded guilty in January 2014 to drug theft and evidence tampering, and was sentenced to 18 months in jail and five years of probation. She was released after serving her sentence.

Farak painted a picture of her drug abuse, which began in 2004 and included using the lab’s inventory of methamphetamine, amphetamine, cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, MDEA and LSD. She also stole from samples police sent for testing, and once took 100 grams of powder cocaine brought by Chicopee police and used it to manufacture crack cocaine at her workstation.

Farak’s description of how she converted the state drug lab into her personal dispensary is bad enough. Just as unfathomable are the lack of safeguards that allowed her to get away with it for so long. Hampden Superior Court Judge Richard Carey described the lax controls in a ruling issued in June dismissing the convictions of seven defendants tied to evidence tested by Farak.

There were no audits of drugs at the lab until July 2012, employees had unrestricted access to the vault where they were kept and there were no security cameras, Carey wrote. He also found that Farak had “no continuing education, proficiency testing, or real supervision.”

Carey added, “The complete lack of security at the Amherst lab was a fundamental flaw which enabled Farak to tamper with drugs without detection.”

Similar lax supervision at the lab in Jamaica Plain allowed Dookhan to intentionally contaminate samples and testify about the outcome of tests that she never conducted. A state inspector general’s report determined that the “most glaring factor” permitting her misconduct was a “failure of management.”

There was no evidence that Dookhan stole drugs for her own use. She pleaded guilty in November 2013 to evidence tampering and was released on parole in April 2016 after serving three years in prison.

The two rogue chemists were punished. Now it is up to state officials to guarantee better screening, training, testing and supervision of drug lab employees, and put in place security protocols to prevent future scandals.