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Big-picture solution needed in drug lab scandals

Sonja Farak stood during her arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown in 2013. Don Treeger/AP/The Springfield Union News

The Commonwealth’s drug lab scandal widened in scope this month with revelations about the misdeeds of Sonja Farak, a state chemist who regularly got high on the job by dipping into drug samples and stores of evidence. For nearly eight years, according to an investigation by the attorney general’s office, Farak smoked crack cocaine in the Amherst lab, usually cooked up from evidence submitted by police, and availed herself of daily hits of methamphetamine.

What’s even worse for defendants is that for years Farak actually testified in hundreds of court cases while high on a mind-bending cocktail of illicitly obtained pharmaceuticals. “The information we gathered during the course of our investigation is disturbing and will no doubt have implications for many cases,” Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, told Evan Allen of the Globe.

That’s putting it mildly. The Farak case comes hard on the heels of another massive drug lab scandal at the former Department of Public Health lab in Jamaica Plain. Chemist Annie Dookhan was convicted in 2013 of fabricating evidence in thousands of samples she tested. Taken together, these scandals not only give the Commonwealth a national black eye, but erode the public trust. State law enforcement officials should work with the court system on a comprehensive solution that achieves justice for the thousands upon thousands of defendants who were convicted using tainted evidence.

The toll of Dookhan’s misconduct is especially severe: from 2003 — 2012, her work accounted for more than 24,000 cases in which defendants were convicted or faced other adverse dispositions, according to data from prosecutors released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Yet most of the defendants have not gotten any official notice that Dookhan worked on their case, the ACLU notes. Although most, if not all, defendants have served their sentences and are back in the community, many face the consequences of having a drug conviction on their record: they may have difficulty finding a job or housing, or even be deported. And a case-by-case approach could cost millions in additional funding for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency.


To be sure, not all Dookhan defendants were first-time nonviolent offenders caught with, say, a joint or two. Some were serious drug traffickers who seemed to willingly play out their role in the state’s damaging cycle of opioid abuse and addiction.


One potential solution was proposed two years ago by the ACLU and pro bono counsel for petitioners — and should get serious consideration now. District attorneys could work with the court system to separate out a group of the most serious offenders for retrial. The records of other tainted convictions not singled out could be wiped clean.

In a ruling last year, the Supreme Judicial Court seemed to leave the door open to a global remedy in the event of further delays in achieving justice. On Friday, lawyers filed a petition asking Justice Margot Botsford to refer to the whole SJC the question of whether all Dookhan cases should be dismissed or subjected to a court-imposed deadline.

The Commonwealth’s reputation is at stake. The delays inherent in processing the 24,000 Dookhan cases — and the additional cases generated by Farak’s chronic misconduct — abrogate the cherished principle of due process. A comprehensive remedy is needed to lift the burden of this systemic failure.