UM drug lab that was initially slated to close might stay open

By Sam Hayes

The western Massachusetts drug testing lab stationed on the University of Massachusetts campus – which had been slated to shut down by the end of the month – may have gotten a second life breathed into it by several state representatives who oppose the closure of the facility.

Lynn Tran/Collegian
Lynn Tran/Collegian

The lab, which is located in Morrill Science Building I and tests illegal drugs confiscated by police in the western half of the state, was scheduled to close this Friday, Sept. 30. But 23 state representatives and senators signed a letter earlier this month that asked for $300,000 in supplemental budget funding to keep the lab open.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which runs the lab, announced last week that it has decided to re-evaluate its Aug. 18 decision to close the lab.

“No final decision has been made about the closure of the lab and we are still in the process of evaluating options,” said DPH spokesperson Julia Hurley.

Although closing the lab would save the DPH money, state representatives argue that it would merely shift the cost onto taxpayers and area towns.

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, who represents constituents in Franklin and Hampshire counties – which includes Amherst – was one of the main authors of the letter that argues to continue to fund the lab.

“This cut will simply just shift the cost and slow down the judicial system,” he said, warning that a slower judicial process will incur more tax payer costs.

If the Amherst lab was to close, all drugs seized by police as evidence would have to be taken to the only other lab of its kind in Massachusetts, which is located in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. That lab, which is reportedly already three months behind schedule, would have to take on an additional load which some contest could slow the judicial system, which relies on the test results and testimonies of lab workers.

Due to chain-of-evidence laws, drugs must be transported to testing labs by an on-duty police officer. The increased distance of transportation would shift the cost onto towns and tax payers who pay for the extra time and mileage of having officers driving further, according to Rosenberg.

Rosenberg used an example of a Pittsfield police officer driving about an hour and a half to Amherst to drop off evidence instead of driving three hours to Boston to do so. After two round trips – dropping off evidence and returning, and picking up the evidence later – it would be a six hour difference between the six hours of travel to the Amherst lab and the 12 to Boston, he said.

“It would be terribly inefficient,” said Rosenberg, who noted that he remains hopeful that a supplemental budget amendment going through the state house will pass and keep the lab afloat.

Fellow letter-signer and Amherst state Rep. Ellen Story also fears of resulting costs and inefficiencies due to the lab’s closure.

“It would be inefficient to the extreme,” said Story in a phone interview while driving from Boston to Amherst. “The money will have to come out of cities and towns … [and it would] certainly cost tax payers more.”

Story said she understands why the DPH has considered closing the lab, citing massive cuts in the department, but noted that she does not think this cut is the answer.

“The people in law enforcement that I have talked to have convinced me that this is not a good plan,” she said.

UMass Deputy Chief of Police Patrick Archbald told the Springfield Republican in mid-August that he too opposes the lab’s closure.

Although the lab is located on campus, it is not funded by UMass and the school does not receive money from it. University spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons said that the only relationship between UMass and the lab is that it is on campus. If the lab were to close, he said, it would not negatively affect the whole school.

“The only effect [the lab closing] would have would be that it would open up space,” said Fitzgibbons.

The lab, the Republican reported, analyzes 6,000 samples per year in connection with criminal drug cases.

Sam Hayes can be reached at [email protected]