On April 1, 2020, Netflix released its latest true crime series, “How to Fix a Drug Scandal.” The story is complex and takes place over 10 years, covering the crimes of Sonja Farak, a chemist at a Massachusetts state drug lab. It also explores the issues with the system in exposing the extent of her crimes and the length of time she was consuming drugs at the workplace.
In 2004, Sonja Farak started working at the Amherst Lab in Massachusetts. She was 26 years old at the time, born and raised in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. She had some mental health problems and had frequently struggled with depression. Over the next nine to ten years, she would consume almost all of the drugs she was tasked with testing and would tamper with evidence when she tried to cover her tracks.
Farak was a chemist responsible for testing for authenticity the various drugs that were brought in by law enforcement across the region. She was also responsible for testifying on the stand about her results because they were often central to criminal cases.
Here’s what you need to know about Sonja Farak’s case from “How to Fix a Drug Scandal”:
1. She Began Using Drugs at Work Just a Few Months After She Transferred to the Amherst Lab
According to a report by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) of Massachusetts, the Amherst Lab had a set of “standards” to use as references, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone and LSD. Farak testified that she started consuming these lab standards “on a fairly regular basis” a few months after she arrived, either in late 2004 or early 2005. She said she started with the methamphetamine out of “curiosity” and enjoyed the “energy boost” she got from it.
She started taking methamphetamine every morning in early 2005 and over the next four years would take it multiple times a day. By 2009, the lab’s standard was almost gone, so she started taking amphetamine and phentermine, but she also testified that she started getting substance abuse counseling in January 2009. The same year, she began using other standards like ketamine, MDMA, MDEA, cocaine and LSD.
She started using the police-submitted samples at the end of 2009, specifically cocaine and LSD. By the end of 2011, she had used up the methamphetamine, amphetamine and ketamine lab standards and the cocaine standard was highly diminished. She then started taking from the base (crack) cocaine standards and said she became heavily addicted and started using the drugs even at her workstation while there were other employees at the lab.
Farak also testified that by the summer of 2012, she started taking from other chemists’ samples, mostly base cocaine. She also started manufacturing crack herself at her workstation and estimated that she would smoke crack 10 to 12 times a day.
2. Her Activities Were Discovered in January 2013 & She Was Arrested Shortly After
The AGO’s report continues, explaining that on January 17, 2013, another chemist at the lab, Sharon Salem, discovered some discrepancies in the drug samples that Farak had tested, and that two samples were missing. She told her supervisor and the two looked through Farak’s workstation, where they found unlabeled drugs and paraphernalia, as well as the two evidence bags for the missing samples.
They retested the missing samples and found that one of them was not a controlled substance even though that was what Farak had reported. They believed that Farak had removed the drug and put in counterfeit drugs instead, so they reported this to the Massachusetts State Police.
Once the police found that additional drugs were missing and replaced with counterfeit drugs, they ordered a closure of the Amherst Lab, on January 18, 2013. On January 19, officers obtained a warrant to search Farak’s car and discovered items from the lab as well as different controlled substances. They arrested Farak at her home on the evening of January 19, 2013.
3. The Trial Took Place Over the Next Year & She Initially Pleaded Not Guilty
On January 29, Farak denied the charges of drug possession and tampering with evidence. Her family posted her bail. Her lawyer, Elaine Pourinski, submitted letters from her neighbors to the judge that showed her contributions to the community, including walking people’s dogs and helping her neighbors.
Farak was indicted by a special statewide grand jury on April 1, 2013.
In the January 2013 investigation in her car, police found a series of worksheets and a diary kept by Farak which chronicled her drug use. In one, she wrote “Tried to resist using @ work, but ended up failing.” On another substance abuse therapy worksheet she wrote “Going to use phentermine, but when I went to take it, I saw how little (v. little) there is left = ended up not using.”
These notes were withheld from defense attorneys and a judge for over a year despite requests for the evidence, as it gave a clear timeline of when Farak started using.
4. She Was Sentenced in January 2014 After Pleading Guilty
On January 6, 2014, Farak pleaded guilty to four counts of tampering with evidence, four counts of theft of a controlled substance from a dispensary (the lab) and two counts of unlawful possession of a controlled substance. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison, five years of probation and 500 hours of community service.
Local news reporting from the trial stated that Farak “struggled to wipe tears away as the judge announced the sentence.” She pleaded guilty two weeks after she was jailed for failing a drug test while out on bail.
Farak has kept a low profile since her release from prison, appearing only rarely in court in civil cases stemming from lawsuits against her.
5. A Lengthy Review Took Place of All the Cases Farak Handled & Roughly 8,000 Were Eventually Dismissed
When the case broke, the state set out to review all cases Farak had handled during the period they believed she was taking drugs at work, because her reports were key to thousands of cases involving thousands of defendants. However, this was made more complicated due to the fact that it wasn’t clear when Farak started using the drugs she was testing, and the withheld evidence of her worksheets and diary by the prosecution.
In 2018, years after Farak’s release from prison, the court dismissed an average of 11,000 convictions in 7,700 different criminal cases as a result of Farak’s misconduct. The Hampden Superior Court judge wrote in his ruling: “It has been startling to see unveiled the amount of damage done by a single lab analyst, Sonja Farak, who placed her own selfish wants and needs before her duties as a public servant in a critically important role.”
He also criticized the conduct of two assistant attorney generals, Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, who “compounded and aggravated the damage caused by Farak. Their intentional and deceptive actions ensured that justice would certainly be delayed, if not outright denied, and in the process, they violated their oaths as assistant attorneys general and officers of the court.”
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