Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 1st, 2020
How to Fix a Drug Scandal (Erin Lee Carr, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.
Documentarian and true-crime specialist Erin Lee Carr returns to the geographical scene of her 2019 HBO film I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter with a new four-part Netflix series How to Fix a Drug Scandal, which premieres today on the streaming service. Both works take place in Massachusetts and both force viewers to consider multiple points of view in a wild ride of a legal narrative. In the most recent one, however, the right and wrong of the arc are clearer, if no less complex, and do, eventually, bend towards justice in a morally satisfying conclusion. Along the journey, though, there are twists and reversals that keep the viewer equally engaged and enraged. Who could ask for anything more?
Carr sets out to tell the fraught tales of chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak, whose misdeeds would eventually result in the vacating of over 35,000 drug convictions. Dookhan’s crimes were those of hubris and ambition, Farak’s of depression and addiction. Naturally, therefore, Farak makes a sadder protagonist, while Dookhan is a more arrogant charlatan. The ultimate results are the same, irrespective of underlying reason: thousands of people were incarcerated in Massachusetts with flawed, tainted or just plain incorrect analyses of the ostensible drugs in their possession. Wherever one might stand on the nation’s long and unsuccessful “War on Drugs,” it can hardly serve the cause of justice to allow imprisonment on problematic evidence. It may happen more than we’d like to admit, but when we discover that miscarriage, surely we should correct the error, right? And that is the crux of the story, here, for when the authorities do get wind of the violations, their first thought is to cover them up. It’s not entirely possible to do so once the media print the scandal, so they minimize, instead.
Dookhan was guilty of prioritizing speed to raise her own profile and secure a sense of self-worth; she therefore would eyeball – what other chemists call “dry-labbing” – confiscated samples rather then actually testing them. Just because it looks like cocaine does not mean it is cocaine, as it turns out. Farak was a more tragic figure, trying out the laboratory standards (those substances against which illegal drugs are compared) for herself and quickly developing a dependency that would only grow worse over the course of her ten-year career. How can the courts trust a positive (or a negative) result from an official who was under the influence? The short answer is … they can’t.
The revelations about Dookhan came first, in 2013, and then, 6 months later, Farak’s. The one was in the Boston area, the other in the western part of the state, in Amherst. Together, they covered most of Massachusetts. It’s easy to understand why Attorney General Martha Coakley would not want further bad publicity after Dookhan, but keeping people in jail is never right. And so, over the course of the four parts (each under an hour) of her series, director Carr methodically walks us through a determined bunch of resolute defense lawyers, foremost among them Luke Ryan, in the west, and the ACLU’s Matt Segal, in the east. Together, along with others, they worked diligently, against a barrage of official pressure, to pursue justice for their clients and all who had suffered at the hands of Dookhan and Farak. Yes, some (perhaps many) of those convicted may have actually been guilty, but due process is due process, and law and order do not work without strict accountability.
It’s an excellent procedural on the how-tos of legal resistance, as well as the ins and outs of narcotics penalties, with a fair measure of chemistry thrown in, to boot. The series entertains and fascinates, both, but most importantly, causes outrage. Who are these monsters who put their own careers above the welfare of people in need? Do their oaths of office mean nothing? Apparently not (here’s looking at you, Coakley). Dookhan and Farak did a lot of damage, but the real corruption lies in the ranks above. Watch and take note, and never forget the names of the heroes and villains here. The former deserve everlasting praise; the latter, eternal scorn. Thanks to How to Fix a Drug Scandal, we see both in their barest essential, for better and worse. Human nature on elemental display makes for gripping drama, always.