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‘How to Fix a Drug Scandal’ Is a Deft Takedown of the War on Drugs

The new Netflix true-crime series is ostensibly about the shocking illegal exploits of chemists Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan, but you may end up having sympathy for them — as well as for the thousands of addicts caught in our broken judicial system

The Netflix documentary series How to Fix a Drug Scandal tells the story of two Massachusetts drug lab chemists whose misdeeds not only landed them in jail but also invalidated thousands of convictions predicated on their faulty work. A different film might have demonized Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan, showing how their unconscionable behavior sent potentially innocent people to jail, destroying countless lives in the process. But director Erin Lee Carr’s engrossing docuseries goes a different way. Without ever absolving these two women, Carr finds something tragic in both of them — particularly Farak, who had more in common with the individuals she helped convict than she probably cared to admit. Farak and Dookhan are both deserving of scorn, but How to Fix a Drug Scandal deftly argues that their crimes are baked into this country’s broken War on Drugs policy — these women made their own bed, but we’ve all been lying in it for a while. 

This four-episode series recounts the one-two punch of scandals that rocked New England in late 2012 and early 2013. Dookhan, working at the Hinton State Laboratory in Boston, was arrested after it came out that she didn’t properly test drug evidence given to her by police. (Instead, she did what’s known as “dry-labbing”: testing a few samples, confirming that they were indeed controlled substances, and then simply assuming the rest were the same without testing because they looked similar.) Four months later, Farak, working at the Amherst lab in Western Massachusetts, was arrested under suspicion that she tampered with evidence and for possession of controlled substances.

As a fellow chemist mentions in How to Fix a Drug Scandal, the kind of chemistry that Farak and Dookhan, operating completely independently of one another, were hired to do isn’t the sexy, forensic-crime-show stuff you see on CSI: Miami. It’s a mundane, repetitious job: You’re given evidence for upcoming drug cases, you test the substances to confirm that they’re, say, heroin or cocaine, and then you submit your findings. Every once in a while, you go to court to testify about your findings. It ain’t glamorous.

But what makes this docuseries so bitterly ironic is that Carr — who last year directed I Love You, Now Die, about the Michelle Carter/Conrad Roy case — illustrates that it was precisely the job’s low-profile status that made it the perfect incubator for the two chemists’ behavior. For Dookhan, a first-generation American whose family had moved to the States from the Caribbean, her menial labor was merely a stepping-stone to the greater life she envisioned. As for Farak, who had been an honors student and a star athlete, winding up as a lab chemist seemed like a defeat after showing such early promise. She sought an escape in the very drugs she was supposed to be testing.

Featuring lively talking heads, predictably slick graphics and some intriguing re-creations — an actress named Shannon O’Neill “plays” Farak giving her grand jury testimony and in staged flashbacks at the Amherst lab — How to Fix a Drug Scandal very much adheres to Netflix’s template for riveting true-crime series. The twists happen right on cue and are skillfully executed. When one episode ends, you immediately want to click on the next to find out what happens. But beyond the crisp storytelling, there’s also a growing sadness that permeates the series — these chemists foolishly threw away bright futures. They can only blame themselves, but you may end up feeling bad for them anyway.

Farak gets more of Carr’s attention — the chemist’s mother and sister are interviewed on camera, although she apparently declined to participate — but Dookhan’s tale is just as despairing. In a lot of ways, she was the embodiment of the American dream, moving to these shores, studying hard and trying to make a better life for herself. Neither she nor her family participated in the film, so we get less of an intimate portrait of her than Farak, but even so, we sense a go-getter — or as someone describes her in How to Fix a Drug Scandal, a striver.

Yet it was that very same going-above-and-beyond instinct that ultimately ruined her. Working at Hinton, the only drug lab in the populous Boston area, Dookhan felt pressured to churn out as many tests as possible per day to keep up with the mountain of upcoming court cases. Dookhan was an exemplary employee, operating at a much higher efficiency rate than her colleagues. (She’s recalled as someone who got into the lab at the crack of dawn and was always the last one to leave.)

However, she was also cutting corners, engaging in dry-labbing to reduce the time it would take to test each sample. Even more disturbing, she buddied up to prosecutors, behaving as if they were on the same side in their pursuit of catching bad guys. That was a clear ethics violation — drug lab chemists are supposed to give unbiased scientific results, not be a weapon for prosecutors — but Dookhan apparently wanted that validation so badly that she crossed the line. In her rush to continue to be the model student, she stopped doing her job, falsely confirming evidence as being controlled substances and dooming countless defendants to jail.

But if Dookhan’s ruin is largely woeful, Farak’s approaches the Shakespearean. How to Fix a Drug Scandal is built around her story and the different stages of her fall from grace. If things had worked out differently, hers would have been a remarkable life. Her sister Amy talks about her admiringly — how they moved from San Diego to Rhode Island when they were little girls because of their dad’s military job, Sonja becoming the first woman in the state to play on a men’s football team.

However, despite Farak’s impressive athletic and academic credentials, and seemingly happy middle-class life, she battled depression since she was a teenager. Looking for a respite from the drudgery of being a lab chemist, she decided to start sampling the liquid meth in their supply fridge. A crime lab has plenty of drugs on hand as standards — a pure sample against which the chemists can measure the evidence samples given to them — and Farak found that a few drops of liquid meth improved her mood and productivity. But then she moved to cocaine. And then finally crack. Partly, it was because she had to cover her tracks — if the standards supply dropped precipitously, she’d arouse suspicion — but, also, it was because she was an addict. By the time we learn that she’d take directly from the evidence samples to feed her habit, the depth of her disease is already painfully clear.

Not that How to Fix a Drug Scandal is a lament for Farak or Dookhan — rightly so, the focus is on the incarcerated, who were the victims of these chemists’ conduct. And there’s a lot of anger directed at the Massachusetts prosecutors who failed to act. With Dookhan, the real crime was how her adversarial demeanor toward defendants was encouraged, but Farak’s case is soon complicated by a few district attorneys’ attempts to suppress evidence about her addiction in order to keep convictions she helped orchestrate from getting overturned. Defense attorneys like Luke Ryan become the series’ heroes, fighting to get their convicted clients freed since the evidence against them was tainted. These two women were the face of the scandal, but some of the most insidious behavior was carried out by their superiors, consumed with ensuring that low-level drug offenders were stuck behind bars.

Which is where this documentary’s dual-meaning title comes in. For Farak and Dookhan’s bosses, what needed “fixing” was the media coverage — it was a PR nightmare that prosecutors tried very hard (and, in some cases, unethically) to cover up. But Carr sees the “scandal” as something else entirely. This is hardly the first film to suggest that our drug laws are far too punitive; How to Fix a Drug Scandal, however, says it in a new way by illustrating how these women’s disgrace is inherently linked to those policies. The emphasis on getting convictions emboldened Dookhan’s recklessness, and prosecutors’ thirst to protect faulty convictions adds a sad denouement to Farak’s public embarrassment, leading to a final twist that I won’t reveal.

Suffice it to say, like so many of the people she helped put away, Farak is an addict, unable to free herself from a constant craving. Too often in this country, we have little sympathy for these people. But in one of the docuseries’ most touching moments, Ryan admits that his heart goes out to Farak — even though she falsely put his clients in jail. “My natural tendency is to really sympathize with drug addicts and feel like they’re suffering,” he says near the end of How to Fix a Drug Scandal

It’s a sentiment that sticks with you. Carr wants us to have compassion for her film’s main character — but she’s also asking viewers to sympathize with the faceless addicts who got tossed into penitentiaries every day. And so, in the end, the splashy scandal that lures you into this binge-able series ends up not being its worst crimes.