The Opioid epidemic in the United States has reached such extreme levels that it was declared a public health emergency in October of 2017. The focus of most of the attention around this issue lies in the concern for the thousands of lives lost each year to these addictions and the way that doctor prescribed pain killers often lead to a deadly heroin addiction. However, there is collateral damage done by this epidemic that is not spoken about as often. This drug crisis may be responsible for many cases of wrongful conviction in drug related crimes.
When discussing the issues in our crime labs as it relates to the opioid epidemic it is important to first discuss the role of the war on drugs. The repercussions of this country’s flawed attack on drug crimes starting back in the 1980’s can be seen today in the fact that drug crimes still account for the large majority of our prison population. This, of course, means that forensic laboratories across the country are handling a great deal of drugs as evidence. The high demand in labs across the nation also means that the standards are taking a toll. Workers in the lab are often untrained and unsupervised, and unacceptable conditions are allowed to persist. Today, working in a crime lab often means that you have unfiltered access, and typically unmonitored access, to a massive supply of drug samples. Whether that be evidence from a case or samples to test evidence against, you are likely to be handling drugs often.
It is also important to highlight the path that opioid addiction tends to take for it’s many sufferers. The large majority of those addicted to opioids began their problem with a doctor’s prescription. The problem with opioids is that the dosage constantly has to be increased for the same effects to be achieved. This is how regular people become addicts in a frighteningly small window of time. There are two reasons why this piece is important. First being, as this addiction gets its start, sufferers can be highly functional members of society. They can have jobs, even in a crime lab, as their fix is still being legally prescribed to them. The second reason is, these people are not typically the kinds of people who would want to access drugs from an illegal source when their prescription runs out, or even necessarily know how. That makes the readily available stocks of evidence in labs an easy-access source for functioning opioid addicts as opposed to trying to find them on the street.
If it seems shocking that drug addicts could be holding jobs in such a sensitive position and taking drugs without anyone’s notice, that’s because it is shocking. But, unfortunately, it is not untrue or even all that rare. Large scale sensationalized cases, like that of Sonja Farak who, because of her powerful addiction, diluted drug samples after stealing for herself and gave testimony in court while high, are responsible for thousands of wrongful convictions and are definitely more extreme examples. However, scandals such as these in forensic labs, even if not so extreme, are happening often.
Now, how do these addicts working in labs contribute to wrongful convictions? The accused always have a right to a fair trial and a fair trial cannot include forensic testimony given while high, regarding evidence tested in the lab while under the influence as well. Even if the vast majority of those convicted of crimes based on the testing done by addicts are truly guilty, they did not receive a fair, honest trial. Drug labs that are so out of control that employees are getting high at work, with samples that they should be testing, cannot be giving testimony. This irresponsible behavior by crime labs and by prosecutors who cover up the extent of this misconduct, calls into question tens of thousands of what would be regular undisputed drug convictions.
What’s more, these poorly run and poorly monitored labs can also give way to the intentional tampering of evidence. Something as simple as adding extra weight to drug samples can raise a charge from possession to distribution to trafficking. Whether it’s an addict filling in what they’ve taken for themselves from a drug sample or someone with intent to help the prosecution snatch a larger conviction, its unjust.
As we watch opioid addiction turn into a national crisis and more and more scandals like these come to light, the question is begged what good, if any at all, has the war on drugs done for this country. The millions incarcerated in this country are overwhelmingly addicted to drugs and they are not shaking these addictions. Rather, they are getting out, going back to the same lifestyle, and re-entering the revolving door of our criminal justice system when they inevitably get arrested again. Incarcerating drug dealers and addicts in droves clearly has not positively impacted drug addiction in American families. As we stand almost 50 years into this unwinnable war, we stand in a nation under a health crisis of drug addiction. This has spiraled into the corruption that we see today in forensic labs and now wrongful convictions on behalf of drug-addicted chemists.