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'System Overload' — Backlog Soars at Drug Labs Nationwide, Not Just Shuttered Lab in Jamaica Plain

The case of "rogue chemist" Annie Dookhan, accused of tainting drug evidence in thousands of cases, should be seen in context of increasing pressure on forensic labs, professionals say.

 

"Rogue chemist" Annie Dookhan, accused of tainting drug samples in thousands of Bay State cases, didn't operate in a vacuum.

More like a sweatshop.

Lab professionals say caseloads have soared across the U.S., with backlogs of more than a month rising sharply since 2005, according to an article in Nature.

Dookhan's case is already infamous here in Massachusetts, where it has shaken confidence in the justice system. Authorities say Dookhan, for reasons unknown, altered evidence and rushed through testing in up to 34,000 drug cases during her years as a chemist at the State Drug Lab in JP. An estimated 1,100 people are behind bars based on evidence she handled.

One theory, voiced by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, is that Dookhan's drive to be acknowledged as a good worker drove her to take shortcuts.

One colleague called her a "superwoman" who did two or three times the work load of other chemists. And that points to a problem, lab professionals say. Forensic labs in the U.S. are facing increasing backlogs of work as they struggle to keep up, according to a review by the respected journal Nature.

"If you think this couldn’t happen in your lab, you’re naive," Robin Cotton, director of the forensic-sciences program at Boston University and a former forensic-lab director, told Nature. "Lab directors all over the country are paying attention."

One in four lab requests in the U.S. is delayed by a least a month, Nature reports.

Another science publication, RSC ChemistryWorld, notes calls for more rigorous standards. Ideas include video taping of lab processes, having labs not be run by police or prosecutors and doing random checks of samples by quality assurance officers.

Indeed, steam is gathering at the federal level to address standards in labs. The pending legislation, Nature notes, would not address funding shortfalls.

So far, Dookhan has been charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one of falsifying a university degree. She pleaded not guilty is out of jail on $10,000 bond.

Read the entire Nature report for more on caseload burdens across the U.S.

For all of Jamaica Plain Patch's coverage of the JP Drug Lab Scandal, please visit our topic page on the issue.

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