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Cocaine and corruption: why everyone’s talking about Netflix’s How to Fix a Drug Scandal

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Anna Brech
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How To Fix A Drugs Scandal

Charting one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in America’s war on drugs, How to Fix a Drug Scandal on Netflix is set to be your new real-crime addiction.

What happens when two women tasked with securing tens of thousands of criminal convictions are separately found to have tampered with the evidence? And how can you fix a justice system that’s rotten to the core?

These are the questions at the heart of Netflix’s docuseries How To Fix A Drug Scandal, which is sparking huge conversations about addiction, cover-ups and racial justice on social media right now. 

The gripping true-crime story cuts to the core of a mass-scale criminal justice failure that has affected tens of thousands of inmates in the US state of Massachusetts.

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The four-part series, directed by filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, takes a forensic look at grand jury testimony involved in the conviction of drug lab chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak. 

It also delves into shocking attempts by state prosecutors to downplay the ricochet impact of Sonja’s misconduct on the justice system at large, raising disturbing questions about power and racism at the core of America’s war on drugs.

This is a tale of meth addiction, of undersourced labs, of high-level corruption and a system that seems set up to fail. The sheer scale of the crimes, along with the cover-ups behind them, has sent shockwaves through audiences around the world, with many taking to Twitter to express their anger and disbelief. 

Here’s everything you need to know about Netflix’s documentary of the moment.

What’s the story behind How to Fix a Drug Scandal?

The crimes threw the entire foundation of a justice system into doubt

In 2013, state drug lab chemist Sonja Farak was arrested for taking meth, crack cocaine, amphetamines, ketamine and LSD: the very drugs she was tasked with testing.

Sonja, it turned out, had been taking the drugs in the bathroom and even in court, before testifying about them in a process that helped to put many thousands of defendants behind bars. Sometimes, she used baking soda or soap to replace portions of the drug batches she had stolen from for personal use.

“I was smoking in the lab, I was smoking at home. I actually smoked in the evidence room,” she says. “I was totally controlled by my addiction.”

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Sonja’s evidence tampering, and the fact she was high when she ran lab tests, went unnoticed for nearly a decade. But incredibly, she was not the only chemist whose criminal activities rocked the Massachusetts criminal justice system.

Six months prior to Farak’s arrest, chemist Annie Dookhan was caught faking thousands of drug results and forging paperwork in order to supersize her productivity and impress her superiors.

The women’s actions resulted in at least 50,000 faulty convictions based on forensic misconduct, dating back years in the state of Massachusetts. But, while Dookhan’s case quickly opened the floodgates on appeals (the so-called “Dookhan defendants”), state prosecutors hid the true extent of Farak’s addiction – leading to a cover-up at the highest level.

Is there a trailer for How to Fix a Drug Scandal?

There sure is – get a feel for the action, below.

What happened to Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak?

In November 2013, Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, and perjury. She was sentenced to up to five years in jail, and served three, gaining parole in April 2016. “She’s moving forward with her life and she has a very positive outlook on the future,” her attorney said at the time.

Sonja Farak was found guilty of tampering with evidence, possession of illegal drugs, and stealing cocaine from her lab. She served a year of an 18-month sentence and was released on parole in 2015. Part of the documentary looks at the reasons behind Sonja’s addictions – including a long battle with depression – and filmmaker Erin Lee Carr has confirmed that she is now clean.  

What happened to the victims of the scandal?

Thousands of wrongly convicted inmates were kept in jail because of the cover-up

Because prosecutors withheld Farak’s handwritten notes about her drug use and evidence tampering, defendants who could have challenged their convictions were prevented – in some cases for years – from moving forwards with their appeals. 

How to Fix a Drug Scandal lays bare the devastating impact this had not only on the defendants themselves (many of whom were kept in jail on the grounds of faulty evidence), but also the ripple effect on their families and loved ones.

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Eventually (and in part thanks to the efforts of dogged defense attorney Luke Ryan), Massachusetts’ top court called out “the deceptive withholding of exculpatory evidence by members of the Attorney General’s office” in Farak’s case. Nearly 11,000 drug convictions related to her tenure have been dismissed to date, with more likely to come. 

Almost every drugs case based on Annie Dookan’s forensic analysis has also been thrown out, totalling over 36,000 convictions in full. 

The story does not end there, though. This film is not about vindication: rather it is a scathing exposé of criminal justice failure on an astonishing scale. It raises disturbing questions about the absolute power handed to a small handful of prosecutors – along with why it is that justice looks so different on the basis of class, gender and race. 

What’s been the reaction to How to Fix a Drug Scandal?

Unsurprisingly, the exposé has provoked widespread anger and incredulity – and also plaudits for defense attorney Luke Ryan in battling the state cover-up, and securing justice for his clients.

Where can I watch How to Fix a Drug Scandal?

The two lab chemists behind the crimes

How to Fix a Drug Scandal, a four-part docuseries, is available now on Netflix

Images: Netflix

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Author

Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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