When a criminal is caught with a controlled substance it’s the job of law enforcement to arrest them and the state to prosecute them. But how do you know if the baggie of white powder that forms the crucial evidence is a real drug, or just powdered sugar? With a legal system dependant on certification from independent chemists to prove a drug is illegal, what happens when their credibility is called into question?
How To Fix A Drug Scandal is a Netflix documentary that digs into the cases of chemists Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan. Farak developed a drug addiction and stole from the samples she was supposed to be testing, whereas Dookhan achieved a four times above average productivity rate by ‘dry labbing’ and not actually testing the drugs she was signing certificates for. Between these two scandals discovered in quick succession in Massachusetts in 2013, the validity of thousands of convictions were called into question.
Unless given enough run time to cover every single piece of information, the role of a documentary series surely is to take an interesting story and find the angle. This is especially so when working with a limited series run of only four episodes. However, How To Fix A Drug Scandal spreads itself too thin. It tries to give run time to: the crime itself; the upbringing of both Farak and Dookhan; the legal wrangles caused by a reticent District Attorney office in Farak’s case (who tried to limit the damage to just the two cases she was caught tampering with evidence on); a government cover-up where the War On Drugs is paramount; and also provide lots of dramatic re-enactments to plaster over the gaps.
The re-enactments are certainly the most questionable element of the documentary. Such an inherently interesting crime is not enhanced by having an actress smoke a crack pipe in the toilet cubicles, imbibe pipettes of amphetamine, or emotionlessly recount her actions in a courtroom set. When dealing with Farak’s family or playing an excerpt from criminal interview recordings, the show has a habit of cutting out mid-way through a point only to cut back in later, using the re-enactment to fill in the middle. It makes for a narrative that feels both drawn out in length and simultaneously lacking in detail when various points are repeated.
As it turns out, the least interesting element of this is the crime itself. Once you find out in episode 1 that Farak was consuming the drugs and Dookhan faking the tests, there is little need to re-labour these points. Instead, something touched upon but not extensively explored is the effect of tedium on work, even legally essential work. With underfunded labs and operating practices that rely on volume it was the lack of effective supervision that allowed these crimes to flourish. Farak’s desire to chemically stimulate herself to get through a boring day and Dookhan’s need to lie about her achievements in order to seek praise is something certainly not constrained to just drug testing labs.
Similarly, the extent to which the western Massachusetts rural Amherst District DA’s office withheld evidence when dealing with the Farak case, in order to preserve its previous prosecutions, casts light on an inherent conflict of interest in the legal system that requires good faith to proceed. Just when you think that How To Fix A Drug Scandal is going to deep dive into this aspect, and of the consequences of work tedium in any profession, it swerves back to snipped interviews and re-enactments.
Perfunctory efforts to talk about the thousands of real people affected (many with drug convictions now staining their record or even those who could be entirely innocent) fail to give the show much of a human angle. It would instead have been better to spend a whole episode on the human cost of office malpractice. Ultimately, once the info-high of bringing such a crime to your eyes has passed, the lack of purity in the substance has you come down, unsatisfied.
Words by Michael Record