By Peter Shanley, John Ruch and Rebeca Oliveira
Local state Rep. Liz Malia is saying she had concerns four years ago about the state drug lab now the focus of a scandal that has put thousands of convictions in doubt.
Meanwhile, local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said the legislature has begun an investigation into what happened, and the head of the union that represents chemists at the now-closed state drug lab said it was widely known to be “understaffed and underfunded.”
The state drug lab at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute at 305 South St. was closed in August by the State Police amid concerns that former chemist Annie Dookhan mishandled thousands of drug samples, potentially tainting more than 1,100 convictions. Dookhan is facing several criminal charges.
Malia went on a tour of the state drug lab in 2008 following the dedication of the institute in honor of Dr. William A. Hinton, the first African-American professor at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer researcher in sexually-transmitted diseases. Malia, who had filed legislation to name the institute after Hinton, was troubled by the drug lab conditions.
“I was concerned then, though I didn’t do anything, that it was cramped and crowded,” Malia said in a Gazette interview.
She added she found the drug lab to be “very claustrophobic and strange” and said she “never understood why the drug lab was part of public health.”
Malia said questions need to be answered about funding.
“I didn’t ask these questions and no one else did,” Malia said about the funding issues. “A lot of us dropped the ball.
She added, “I don’t have specific plans, but I want to find out: where are we going to go next year? Where in higher management do these [funds] decisions get made?”
Sánchez said that three legislative committees, including the Joint Committee on Public Health, which he chairs, have opened investigations into what happened at the state drug lab and into a meningitis outbreak caused by a steroid manufactured by a Framingham company.
“There are so many questions right now,” he said. “How could something like this happen in both cases?”
Many states keep crime labs separate from health labs. In fact, in the 1980s, the state attempted to build a separate, eight-story crime lab next to the State Lab, according to local residents, including neighbor Bernie Doherty. He said community opposition halted the plan.
Massachusetts was not alone, but was still unusual, in having a drug-evidence testing lab administered by the state public health department rather than by law enforcement authorities, a Gazette review of other state labs has found.
Among the six New England states, Maine and Rhode Island also combine public health and criminal drug-evidence labs under one roof. In Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, drug evidence analysis is done inside separate crime labs overseen by state police.
In the large, trend-setting states of California, New York and Texas, public health and crime labs are totally separate. The crime labs are administered by police agencies or the attorney general’s office.
The practice of having separate crime labs is followed in states similar to Massachusetts in size, such as Maryland, as well as states similar in population, such as Indiana and Washington.
Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers & Scientists (MOSES), a union that represents the chemists at the now-defunct drug lab, said in a Gazette interview the lab was “well-known to be understaffed and underfunded.” He said the drug lab’s output was “pretty substantial” and that the union and chemists told Department of Public Heath (DPH) the lab was overstressed, but DPH “wasn’t listening.”
DPH did not respond for a request for comment.
Malia said that the state House Ways and Means Committee is working with DPH to try to get money back into services and programs.
“My experience is that they do an incredible job with very little resources,” said Malia. “The whole case is hard.”
The representative also said the legislature has not prioritized law enforcement, the Department of Correction or public safety when it comes to funding.
Sánchez said that there “is more to it than money,” noting the lab had been operating for years and that the drug lab scandal is the result of one person.
Dorant said he hopes now that the drug lab has been transferred to the State Police that the law enforcement agency will recognize that additional funding and staffing is needed at the lab. The work that was being done at the JP drug lab is now being handled by a lab in Sudbury.
Dorant also said there is a backlog of samples to be tested and that bringing back the 12 chemists who worked at the closed drug lab would go “a long way” in reducing that backlog.
Asked about people who might question those 12 chemists’ work, Dorant replied that the chemists are impeccable, competent, highly-educated scientists who respect protocol and procedures and have combined more than 200 years of experience.
“I’m confident their work was above any standard,” he said.
When questioned on how Dookhan would have been able to get away with what she is accused of doing, Dorant responded, “I really don’t know. I’m not part of the investigation. But if everything they say is true, it’s unbelievable how it happened.”
Dorant said that MOSES does not condone any illegal or unethical action by any current or former worker.
The Gazette also inquired about what the other labs at the Institute do. DPH referred to the Gazette to the State Lab website, which lists various departments, such as the disease-testing and former drug-testing labs; the DPH’s Mass. Food Protection Program; the DPH’s Mass. Infectious Disease Bureau; the State Racing Commission Laboratory for testing racehorses for doping; and the National Laboratory Training Network (NLTN). According to its website, that latter program is intended to improve the skills of lab workers and “promote excellence in laboratory practice.”
But according to a current worker at the Institute who did not want to be named, NLTN is a federal program that lost funding and no longer has office space at the Institute.