West Virginia Cities Use Evictions To Combat The Opioid Epidemic
The ‘drug house’ ordinances that force landlords to kick out tenants are mostly compounding the overdose crisis, critics say.
Maya counted the time in breaths and chest compressions. It was November 2019 and she’d stopped by her boyfriend David’s house in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and found him sitting up, unconscious upstairs. She shouted his name. When he didn’t respond she called 911 and laid him down. The 911 operator coached her through the phone as she started CPR.
Leaning over his face, Maya placed fingers under David’s chin and tilted his head back, inhaling deeply. She blew twice into his mouth and watched his chest rise with her breaths. Then, Maya put one hand above the other at the tip of his breastbone, pushed down, and counted to thirty. She pressed, breathed, moved back and forth alongside his unconscious body until, finally, she heard the emergency workers open the front door. When Maya saw their heads crest above the stairs, she felt an overwhelming sense of relief and stepped aside. (Maya and David are not their real names. The Appeal agreed to identify the two using pseudonyms because they said they have endured social shame, job loss, and public embarrassment because of the November incident.)
The scene was a familiar one to the paramedics. Martinsburg, a city of about 17,000 people that sits at the top of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, is an epicenter of the U.S. opioid crisis. In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, over 800 people in West Virginia died of drug overdoses. Over 700 of those overdoses were opioid-related. Martinsburg is the seat of Berkeley County, which had the third-highest number of overdoses in the state in 2018. That same year, Herald-Mail Media reported that first responders in Berkeley and its neighbor Morgan County saved nearly 300 lives by administering naloxone, a chemical that can reverse the immediate effects of opioid poisoning.
But the paramedics weren’t the only people to respond to Maya’s 911 call. Several police officers followed paramedics into David’s house that day. When he regained consciousness, the paramedics left—but the police remained. Maya remembered watching them wander through the house, searching for drugs while the paramedics helped David. She remembered that they found a pipe containing a small amount of marijuana. Then, a little before midnight, one officer left the house to get a search warrant as others ordered David and Maya to sit on the couch. The officers asked David if he had more drugs in the house. Just after midnight, the officers had a search warrant. A search of the home produced more marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, and a hunting rifle. The officers then arrested Maya and David and took them to jail.
Four days later, the Martinsburg Police Department issued a press release labeling David’s residence a “drug house” and announced that Maya and David had been charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana and psilocybin. The press release was also posted on the department’s Facebook page where over 100 people “liked” it. The widely read local newspaper, The Journal, printed the press release nearly in full. David worked as a nurse at an assisted living facility, and when his bosses read the newspaper, they fired him. Maya was suspended from her job as a healthcare worker for elderly people. Then came a bruising and unexpected blow: The police chief sought and obtained an official “public nuisance” designation from Martinsburg’s Municipal Court for the home that David rented, which resulted in his eviction. The swiftness of the process left David with just over a week to move.
Since 2016, a local law has allowed the Martinsburg police chief to seek the “public nuisance” designation for any home if there are two or more incidents related to illegal gambling, prostitution, or drug activity on the property within a 12-month period, or if police allege one incident serious enough that it could lead to at least one year of imprisonment. If a city magistrate agrees with the designation, the property is declared a “public nuisance” and the homeowner is then ordered to abate the problem or face hundreds of dollars in fines. Abatement almost always results in eviction.
Martinsburg Police Chief Maury Richards proposed and advocated for the law, known colloquially as the drug house law, presenting it as a sensible, targeted way to tackle the city’s persistent problem with opioids and rid it of drug dealers. “This is the beginning of a new day in Martinsburg,” Richards said in an Aug. 16, 2016, announcement about the department’s first use of the law. “Our drug house ordinance is a powerful tool for our community. It gives us the ability [to] shut down drug houses in our neighborhoods, block by block. It will be an effective part of MPD’s drug-fighting strategy of enforcement, treatment, and prevention.” Since its 2016 passage, Richards has enthusiastically promoted the law, and it became a signature accomplishment of his tenure, which ended last week. His press releases often touted the number of drug houses he has shut down. David’s house was number 59.
Prosecutors from the Berkeley County prosecuting attorney’s office eventually dropped all the charges against Maya. David pleaded to minor drug possession charges and got his hunting rifle back. A “Good Samaritan” law enacted in West Virginia in 2015 protects people who call 911 about suspected overdoses—and the people they call about—from prosecution. But it provides no protection to people accused of selling drugs, and none against eviction.
David told The Appeal that he has a prescription for THC pills to treat his anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he sometimes smokes marijuana to help with his panic attacks. A decade ago, he accused a Grant County sheriff’s deputy of sexually assaulting him during a roadside stop, and later settled a lawsuit for just over $76,000. But nothing about David’s traumatic past was included in the police press release or newspaper articles celebrating the department’s case against him.
In a state desperate for a solution to a public health crisis, Martinsburg has become a role model for other cities. Today, at least 14 cities in West Virginia have adopted some version of its drug house ordinance. The spread of these laws belies a popular idea that the response to the opioid epidemic has focused on public health interventions different from the criminalization of the 1980s crack epidemic. In North Carolina, people can be charged with “maintaining a dwelling” for the use of drugs; last year, it was the most common felony drug charge in the state. West Virginia’s drug house laws strongly echo a federal criminal statute passed in 1986, which targeted people for maintaining “drug-involved premises” or, as senators discussing the law sometimes called them, “crack houses.” In April, Andrea Circle Bear died from COVID-19 while serving a 26-month federal prison sentence for violating that law. Circle Bear’s conviction stemmed from incidents in April 2018 in which prosecutors alleged that she “unlawfully and knowingly used and maintained” a place for the purpose of distributing methamphetamine. Circle Bear was five months pregnant when she was sentenced and gave birth while on a ventilator weeks before she died.
“What’s certainly different is the widespread belief that we are taking a different approach, but the reality on the ground is very much different,” Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, told The Appeal. He said that the most significant difference between the response to the crack and opioid epidemics is one of perception. According to Beletsky, drug house laws “essentially reduce a major public health crisis to the actions of a few individuals, ‘bad apples,’ and then throw a bunch of punitive measures at these bad apples.”
Beletsky said policies that tie eviction to alleged drug crimes, like West Virginia’s ordinance and others passed at the height of the war on drugs, “very much mirror our drug policy approaches in general.”
“It is the idea that you can incapacitate or take drug dealers off the streets and deter others from engaging in similar behaviors,” he said. “That idea has driven our legal approaches to addiction and drugs for 40 to 50 years. These laws were actively enforced and we’ve spent a lot of resources pursuing that approach and yet we entered and continued to experience the largest drug crisis in our nation’s history. So the idea that you can, by being so drastic, scare people out of addiction, it was based on a theory of addressing drug problems that is not borne out by the evidence.”
Over several months, The Appeal interviewed more than a dozen West Virginia landlords and tenants whose lives were affected by drug house ordinances, and reviewed all the orders of abatement issued in four cities: Martinsburg, Parkersburg, Clarksburg, and South Charleston. The people affected by the ordinances, and service providers who work with them, tell a different story from the one being promoted by police departments and city councils. They say the line between drug dealers and users is blurry and the people who policymakers say they are trying to protect—crime victims and those with substance use disorder—are instead punished. They say the discretion of neighbors and landlords is overruled by police working with limited information, police power is expanding under the guise of addressing a public health crisis, and a policy that sounds simple can hurt both opioid users and those who support them.
In 2015, Maury Richards became Martinsburg police chief after spending 24 years on the force in Chicago. In one of his first interviews, a reporter for The Journal asked for Richards about his plan to tackle the city’s drug problem. Richards responded with a phrase many members of law enforcement have adopted in their approach to the opioid epidemic: “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.” (Richards, who retired May 31, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story, nor did his successor, George Swartwood.) But he didn’t rule out arrests as part of the answer, either. Richards developed a three-pronged approach to opioids: treatment, prevention, and enforcement. Six months into the job, he advocated for the drug house ordinance at a City Council meeting, which would become the centerpiece of his enforcement strategy.
Martinsburg is a working-class community about an hour and a half drive from Washington, D.C. At the center of its downtown strip, the police headquarters shares an unassuming building with City Hall. Law offices, locally owned restaurants, and antique stores stretch out from either side, with empty, dusty storefronts dotting the spaces between them. Per capita income is less than $24,000, and the opioid epidemic is often described as a “disease of despair” linked to poverty and lack of economic opportunity in parts of working-class America like Martinsburg.
Right off Martinsburg’s main downtown street are rows of houses, packed much more closely together than the sprawling heritage homes about a 10-minute drive away. Just over half of the city’s households are renters, a rate considered high in West Virginia where over 70 percent of homes are owner occupied. Richards said rental homes were the root of the city’s drug problem.
Martinsburg City Attorney Floyd McKinley Sayre worked with Richards to draft the drug house ordinance. Under the law, the police chief, city engineer, or another authorized representative of the city can ask the city magistrate to issue an “order of abatement” to any homeowner if they alleged that either two drug, gambling or prostitution crimes in a 12-month period or one crime carrying a possible sentence of at least one year occurred in a residence. No conviction was required. If the city ordered abatement, the homeowner had 30 days to address the problem or face a fine up to $1,000. Though the ordinance covered three kinds of crimes—illegal gambling, prostitution, and drugs—Richards was clear which crime was the focus of the ordinance. “The catalyst was the opioid crisis,” he told The Journal in 2019. “We are targeting drug dealers.”
Soon after the ordinance was enacted, the police used it for the first time against two people accused of selling crack cocaine. One was later sentenced to home confinement, but by then she had already been evicted.
Landlord Carlos Niederhauser received two eviction orders in quick succession in 2017 and raised concerns about the ordinance directly with Sayre. The first tenant was Denny Ford, a Navy veteran who often hosted other veterans at his home while they received treatment at a nearby VA clinic. In June, Martinsburg police sought a drug house designation for his residence after they responded to three calls about suspected overdoses there just a few months apart. While responding to two calls, police arrested a guest for drug possession. Then in August, the city ordered Niederhauser to evict a single mother and her two children after their babysitter was arrested for selling drugs. (The Appeal was unable to reach the tenant for comment but confirmed that a woman by the same name with children had contacted the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness about housing.) Niederhauser avoided municipal fines by complying with the eviction order. He sold Ford a different house, which the city accepted as an abatement strategy.
From August 2016 to December 2017, 19 orders issued contained nearly identical language, excluding the names of people and the alleged crimes they committed. In that period, they ordered landlords to evict their tenants 17 times. Only two—including the sole order issued against a homeowner—did not order anyone removed from their home. Concerns about Ford’s case, and some others where Sayre didn’t think the tenant was causing a problem, led Sayre to eventually advise the magistrates to stop ordering evictions and instead just order landlords to “abate” the problem. But Sayre told The Appeal that abatement orders usually result in eviction anyway. To date, Martinsburg has issued 64 orders under drug house laws.
Roughly a third of tenants targeted with abatement orders were Black or had a Black person in their household. Martinsburg is just 14 percent Black, and Black people historically have been overrepresented in West Virginia’s criminal legal system: In 2013, Black people represented 13 percent of West Virginia’s state prison and jail population, even though they constituted just 3 percent of the state’s population. In all but two orders of abatement issued about renters that were provided to The Appeal, the city also ordered landlords to conduct background checks on all future tenants, in an attempt to ensure that they would be “free from convictions” related to drugs, prostitution, or illegal gambling.
Over 50 Martinsburg landlords now impose bans on people with such convictions. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a guidance letter stating that these bans could violate fair housing standards because they are likely to have racially disparate effects. Sayre defended the bans and said Martinsburg doesn’t intend them to exclude anyone from housing. He said bans are a means to encourage landlords to think carefully about prospective tenants. But he also said he “might need to look a little bit closer at the way the order is written.”
The ban on housing for people with criminal records was one of many outcomes of the drug house ordinance that were not obvious from the law’s language. For example, though assault was not included in the crimes covered by the ordinance, at least six Martinsburg police press releases said drug house evictions started with calls about violence or “domestic disturbances” or mentioned past calls about domestic violence at the house. In most instances, when police responded to the calls, they said they found drugs, which led to drug house orders and then evictions.
Right after the ordinance was enacted in 2016, Katie Spriggs, the executive director of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center, an organization supporting survivors of domestic violence, told Richards she was concerned about its potential effects on the population she worked with. Spriggs told The Appeal that Richards assured her he didn’t intend to harm survivors. Though Spriggs believed him, she said the law has caused harm in practice, something she reiterated at a meeting with him this year. “We’ve definitely had survivors who have been made homeless because of that ordinance. And it was because their perpetrator or themselves were experiencing substance use disorder,” Spriggs said. “It actually put them at a higher risk, because then they didn’t have any housing either.”
In addition to domestic violence calls, more than 10 percent of press releases about drug house actions mentioned police had previously responded to requests for medical assistance or overdose calls at the house, though it wasn’t always clear how, or if, those calls contributed to the drug house designation.
And the drug house ordinance affected far more people than just those accused of drug crimes. In nearly half of cases, the person accused of a drug crime was not the tenant, but a tenant’s guest, according to the abatement orders. Roommates and family members were evicted even after the alleged perpetrator was out of the house. At least five homes had residents with children according to police press releases, court documents, or people involved, and they would have been evicted along with their parents or guardians.
Though drug dealers were targeted by the ordinance, many people cited were never caught selling drugs. In six cases people were evicted for merely possessing drugs, or drug paraphernalia, or having guests who did. One order of abatement about a family with three small children referred only to police finding drug paraphernalia. In seven cases, the drugs alleged were marijuana or psilocybin mushrooms.
The Martinsburg Police Department regularly issues press releases announcing details of arrests, including the full names and addresses of people arrested. They also label residences drug houses long before any criminal charges are proved in court. In one press release, police claimed they recovered 514 grams of cocaine and other illegal drugs worth over $100,000. Months later, the county prosecutor declined to prosecute because of lab results that were “partially exculpatory.” In at least 15 cases relating to orders of abatement there have been, to date, no felony convictions on the charges that formed the basis of the eviction.
In their press releases, police often shared an amount of alleged drug money recovered during an arrest. In a 2019 report that covered three years of enforcement of the ordinance and 59 alleged drug house locations, the department said it confiscated $22,385 in drug money. The report, however, provided no information about how the department knew the cash was derived from drug sales.
In a 2019 press release, Martinsburg police announced an alleged drug house whose tenant, 56-year-old Allen Craig, was charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. They said they “recovered 7 grams of crack cocaine and $1,514 in suspect drug-money” from Craig.
In March, The Appeal talked to Craig, who is currently incarcerated. His soft voice turned hard only when he talked about the fallout of his arrest on a close family friend and roommate, a woman in her late 60s, who wasn’t mentioned in the police press release, though she was evicted because of it.
Craig said he moved to Martinsburg nearly 30 years ago, worked as a DJ and fell in love with the city. When he was young, he used drugs, but then stayed clean for more than a decade. In 2007, doctors prescribed him painkillers after surgery; he said that since then he’s been using drugs, mostly to self-medicate for chronic pain. Last year, the federally funded Eastern Panhandle Drug & Violent Crime Task Force wiretapped the phone of one of Craig’s relatives and heard Craig purchasing drugs and offering to refer other buyers. In January 2019, task force members and Martinsburg police broke down his door and arrested him for allegedly being part of a drug operation. But the only drugs they found were in Craig’s pants pocket, enough for about one-and-a-half days’ personal use, and a small amount of cocaine in his bedroom.
After arresting Craig, police took $180 from his pants pocket. Then they searched his apartment and found an old water container in his closet filled with nearly $1,100 in change and small bills. Craig said it was money he made from selling homemade herbal teas, and that he’d been storing it there since 2013. Police nonetheless seized the container and labeled its contents drug money. Then, they opened his roommate’s purse and took all the money inside, around $160, and added that to the drug money count. They took $80 from another friend who was present when police arrived. Days after the raid, the city of Martinsburg ordered his landlord to abate the problem, which led the landlord to evict his roommate even though Craig was already incarcerated.
In March 2019, Craig and eight other defendants were charged in a 20-count indictment filed in federal court in West Virginia. Craig was hit with just two counts; in January he entered a guilty plea to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute drugs like fentanyl and cocaine. Craig faces up to 20 years in prison, and is awaiting sentencing. He is in a state prison completing a substance use disorder treatment program. In March, federal prosecutors agreed to return most of the money seized during the raid.
Jason Baker was the property manager for Craig’s unit, and he was the lone City Council member to vote against the drug house ordinance in 2016. Even though Baker thinks the ordinance violates the rights of his tenants, he still complied with the city’s abatement order in Craig’s case by evicting Craig’s roommate.
“People want their names to be decent,” Baker told The Appeal, “you want the press release to come out and say ‘the landlord has dealt with this.’” Baker said that if the drug house ordinance didn’t exist, he never would have evicted Craig’s roommate. Baker further noted that the Martinsburg police’s press release made it appear that Craig’s house had been a persistent problem, which he says wasn’t true. In their Jan. 9, 2019, press release about the closure of three alleged drug houses including Craig’s, police noted that abatement orders reduced repeat calls for service at targeted homes by 90 percent. But The Appeal reviewed calls for service in the year leading up to his arrest and found none for Craig’s house.
Richards has long acknowledged that the ordinance doesn’t target big dealers. In the minutes for a March 2016 City Council meeting it was noted that Richards said “there are no high-volume drug dealers to target, but rather small dealers operating out of rental properties.” But Craig is adamant he was only using drugs, not selling them. Craig’s defense attorney, Kirk Bottner, told The Appeal that many of his low-income clients sell small amounts of drugs to support their own use.
“That’s probably what almost all of them are doing,” Bottner said. “They are addicts so they’ll buy a hundred dollars’ worth of crack and they’ll take $20 worth for themselves and sell the remaining $80 worth for a hundred dollars, then go get another hundred dollars’ worth. They don’t think of it as selling, they just think of it as helping someone out.” He said wealthier clients usually don’t sell drugs because they don’t need to. “The poor people get snagged up in the system and pinched real bad and the wealthier people who just buy and use don’t get charged with distribution because they are just using. They get slapped on the wrist and are good to go, that’s the disparity.”
Sayre, the city attorney, said small sellers are exactly who the drug house ordinance was intended to catch.
It didn’t take long for other cities and towns in West Virginia to take note of Martinsburg’s drug house ordinance. The measure offered what seemed to be a solution to a seemingly incurable epidemic that local governments had spent over a decade struggling with. In 2016, a few months after Martinsburg passed its law, Elkins passed a similar one. In 2017 the cities and towns of Clarksburg, Parkersburg, Huntington, and Nitro followed suit. Buckhannon and Fairmont passed drug house laws in 2018.
In its 2019 report, Martinsburg police noted significant results from their drug house laws; they said combined incidents of violent crime, overdoses and drug crimes decreased by over 50 percent on blocks where police had shut down drug houses. After the report, and on the police chief’s recommendation, the City Council increased penalties for landlords who failed to comply with abatement orders.
James Nolan is a professor of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University who studies crime and policing. He also worked as a police officer in Wilmington, Delaware, from 1980 to 1993, including seven years in the drug unit. Nolan was also a member of a National Research Council panel for the National Academy of Sciences’ project on modernizing the nation’s crime statistics. At The Appeal’s request, Nolan reviewed Martinsburg’s statistics about the drug house ordinance, as well as citywide crime statistics published by the department, and concluded that from 2018-2019 there was no statistically significant decline citywide in calls for service, or in most crimes including assault, sexual abuse, robbery or motor vehicle theft, though there were significant declines in arrests and burglaries. There was a statistically significant increase in drug complaints. “You are just moving people around,” he said about the drug house ordinance. “It’s like toothpaste, you push it here and it goes there.” He called the drug house ordinance a short-sighted approach and a poor use of resources.
But Martinsburg’s report didn’t attract this kind of criticism around at the time of its release. Instead, four more cities adopted drug house laws.
Today, at least 14 West Virginia cities, including seven of the state’s 10 most populous cities, have drug house ordinances.
For the most part the laws passed relatively quietly. Some cities put them on the books and barely used them, while others enforced them aggressively.
In Clarksburg, police sent landlords letters that said arrests alone were evidence of illegal activity, a claim that contradicted more than half a century of legal precedent. (In 1957, the Supreme Court ruled in Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners that an “arrest shows nothing more than that someone probably suspected the person apprehended of an offense.”)
In Parkersburg, police Chief Joseph Martin repeatedly ordered landlords to terminate the leases of people who they believed engaged in illegal activity. In July 2018, police set off a flash bomb outside Chollie Robinson’s house. Fearing the loud noise was gunfire, Robinson, who was pregnant at the time, grabbed her 7-year-old daughter and hid in a closet. When police found them, they arrested Robinson and seized her phone and $1,200 in cash. Later, after Robinson was released without any charges brought against her, she learned the police were searching for her boyfriend’s brother, who they said had sold drugs to an informant at her house. Robinson believed that the arrest was behind her, but two months later, police sent her landlord, Dave Wamsley, a letter saying she had participated in illegal activities and demanded her eviction. Wamsley complied, though he told The Appeal that Robinson was a good tenant. “I thought the best thing was just to follow along with this,” he said.
Wamsley said that in the lead-up to the police raid, a neighbor repeatedly called him about Robinson’s family and accused them of drug activity. But he said he visited their house regularly and didn’t find any drug activity. A man who rented a garage apartment behind Robinson’s house never reported any drug-related problems, either. Wamsley suspected the neighbor most likely called the police, too. “Common sense tells me there’s something wrong with this process,” he said. Robinson was fired from her job after the raid and moved her family to a different house, but she quickly gave it up because the rent was too high. Robinson, who is white, says her then-boyfriend is Black and that it was hard to find landlords who would rent to interracial couples in Parkersburg. She eventually moved to Ohio with her daughter.
On the other side of the state, in Bluefield—a town of about 10,000 people—Charkera Ervin works on housing justice issues for the nonprofit Our Future West Virginia. She told The Appeal that she was shocked to learn that her city passed a drug house ordinance in 2019 without her even noticing. “To have people who couldn’t be convicted but will lose their home, that’s much more punitive than the criminal justice system,” she said. After Ervin learned of the law, she reached out to Our Future West Virginia (who she didn’t yet work for), and they helped her contact housing organizations in other West Virginia cities to see if they had heard about similar ordinances—and quickly learned they had.
Zach Brown, chief executive officer of the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, said he started really paying attention to drug house ordinances when a woman his organization helped house in Martinsburg was evicted for allegedly allowing two drug dealers to sell drugs from her home. The woman was recovering from a substance use disorder, and soon after her eviction Brown’s caseworkers began encountering resistance to their clients from landlords. Housing people with mental health disabilities, substance use disorder, and criminal records became risky for landlords who didn’t want to see their names in the local newspaper.
Brown started collecting statistics on the ordinances. In October, he added a question into a statewide case management system, asking every client who was experiencing homelessness if they’d been affected by a nuisance ordinance. Between October and February, 230 people responded, “yes.”
In January, West Virginia housing organizations conducted their annual “point in time” count—a HUD-mandated, statewide survey of people experiencing homelessness on a single night—in which they talked to hundreds of people sleeping outside or sleeping in emergency shelters. In one night alone, 50 people said a nuisance ordinance contributed to their homelessness. The “yes” responses largely came from the counties with the three cities—Martinsburg, Clarksburg, and Parkersburg—that actively enforce their drug house ordinances.
“The whole reason this [ordinance] comes up is because of the desperation of the opioid epidemic,” Brown told The Appeal. “And I get it. People here are desperate to figure it out, and we have to change, this is killing our communities.” He echoed what has become a cliched catchphrase about the opioid crisis: “You can’t arrest it away.” Then he added, “You can’t evict it away, either.” Brown worked with Ervin at the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness and the state’s ACLU chapter to draft a letter to Bluefield’s City Board of Directors about their ordinance concerns. City Attorney Colin Cline said he’d learned about the drug house ordinance from Martinsburg’s city attorney at a West Virginia Municipal League meeting, then adapted it for Bluefield. But after meeting with Ervin and the ACLU, he acknowledged its shortcomings and agreed not to enforce it.
Spurred by that success, Ervin started monitoring the adoption of drug house ordinances, but said it was like “chasing ghosts” because local laws are often passed so quickly. Then, in February, she heard that Morgantown, one of the most populous cities in West Virginia, was considering adopting a drug house ordinance. She and her newfound coalition turned their attention there; they wondered if an organized effort might stop the ordinance’s further spread.
Adelheid Schaupp, a contractor and landlord in Morgantown, proposed the drug house ordinance to her neighbors after reading about it on Google.
On a February afternoon, Schaupp drove in a black pickup truck and told The Appeal of her city in three neighborhoods. First, she drove up a street in the neighborhood of South Park, where she was raised by parents who worked as professors and in healthcare management; there, Schaupp showed a stretch of large, post-Victorian brick homes with deep porches and tidy gardens. Second, just one street over, brick gave way to rows of clapboard houses in Greenmont, a historically Black and immigrant working-class neighborhood whose residents used to work in industrial parks nearby. Third, she crossed a street called White Avenue, and on the other side, she slowed in front of a building that used to be a schoolhouse for Black children from Greenmont and surrounding neighborhoods.
Along the way, Schaupp pointed out bright, red doors that marked the homes she’d bought and renovated herself in the last 10 years, taking months to restore their historic features, then selling or renting them to middle- and low-income families. Schaupp recounted stories of each house like a collector taking stock of her treasure. She was a connoisseur of her neighborhood, sharing tidbits about its history, and residents she knew on each block. But in recent years, Schaupp said she’d grown weary of listening to neighbors complain about increased drug use and the petty thefts. Like other West Virginia cities, Morgantown has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
Frustrated, Schaupp searched the internet for ideas. “The one thing that popped up over and over and over and over again, was this drug house nuisance ordinance,” she said. Over a few months in 2019 and earlier this year, Schaupp read about its potential pitfalls and met with advocates concerned about them, as well as with Morgantown’s city attorney and police chief. Then, she drafted a modified version of Martinsburg’s ordinance.
In the months she worked on the idea, it attracted strong supporters and detractors. The February day that Schaupp showed The Appeal around town, the ordinance made the front page of Morgantown’s newspaper, The Dominion Post. That night, she presented the ordinance to a packed City Council meeting, with a livestream for people who couldn’t fit inside.
Then, for hours after she spoke, people rose from the crowd and walked to the microphone to share their experiences with substance use disorder. Some said the ordinance was a much-needed solution, while others were wary of it. A man from Greenmont spoke in exasperated anger about his children growing up around drugs after he worked hard to get sober. A City Council member spoke of her father’s struggle with substance use disorder. “I care about this population,” she said, “but no one should have to put up with this.” Schaupp echoed their opinions. “At some point we have to stand up and say criminal behavior has consequences.”
Ervin drove in from Charleston to speak about the Morgantown ordinance. She talked about its potential effect on Black residents who were more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, though they don’t use drugs at significantly higher rates than whites. “We cannot allow arrest to be conflated with guilt,” she said to a nearly all-white audience. That night, Ervin was joined by Liira Raines, a colleague who lived in Morgantown, had met with Schaupp about the ordinance, and also organized opposition to it.
Raines also shared her experience with substance use disorder. “I’ve heard a lot in this conversation about coddling people, about the theory that folks need to hit rock bottom,” she said. “That works for some people. I’ve got pretty loaded myself and straightened up. I’ve seen other people do it. But I saw the same strategy with my uncle and he blew his head off rather than try to climb up out of there.” She said she wasn’t willing to try that strategy with her neighbors. Raines’s biggest concern was that the ordinance could push people with housing onto the streets. “They still have to go somewhere,” she said of people evicted under the ordinance. “Those people still exist, they’re not just going to disappear.”
After Raines spoke, a man in a minister’s collar approached the lectern holding a Bible. “I have been sober for a little over four years,” Pastor Bob Roberts said, “but before I got sober, I purchased and used drugs in the Greenmont neighborhood frequently.” After the meeting, Roberts told The Appeal that he’d gone through rehab with eight people, and he was the only one still alive. “I’m trying to imagine getting evicted at any point during my using years and I can’t imagine recovering from that,” he said. “If any one little bad thing would have happened along the way I would probably be dead.”
Roberts sympathized with people who supported the ordinance but wouldn’t join them, regardless of whether they were willing to change it. “Everybody thinks that they can tinker with the language on it, or they can write policy in a way that, well, we won’t have the problems that these other ordinances have had,” he said. “If there was a way to clean up the writing in the policy to make these things effective for what we’re to make it effective for, somebody would’ve figured it out in the last 20 years as these things started hitting the streets.”
By 11 p.m. the room grew sparse. Many people who took to the lectern left soon after speaking; some stormed out or teared up as they walked away. Schaupp and Raines remained in the room. Just before midnight, the City Council agreed to continue discussing the drug house ordinance at a later meeting. A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the ordinance was tabled indefinitely while the City Council addressed its emergency response. To Ervin and the coalition she worked with, it was a partial win. Schaupp said it’s unlikely the ordinance will pass now and felt resigned to the outcome. She’d tried, she said. “I’ve said my piece.”
Angie Gray is a Martinsburg nurse who started Berkeley County’s first needle exchange and harm reduction clinic. Gray describes herself as a supporter of local law enforcement, and says they have been supportive of her needle exchange. Over the last few years, Gray watched the drug house ordinance travel from her hometown to other cities where patients lived. To her, the ordinance was a manifestation of the frustration of frontline workers—including law enforcement—over an epidemic that felt like it would never end.
Gray recounted how West Virginia’s healthcare providers had been “duped” by opioid companies into prescribing addictive drugs. In 2007, the pharmaceutical company Purdue entered a guilty plea in federal court to misbranding OxyContin and misstating its side effects. Then, when West Virginia restricted legal sellers of opioids, people who were already hooked turned to illegal drugs. “We’ve all been affected by this: lost children, lost family members, or suffered with children and loved ones’ addictions,” Gray said. “We tend as humans to want to blame someone, so we’re blaming the addicts.”
But drug house ordinances have extended blame for the opioid crisis far beyond people with substance use disorder. A law that sounded simple and appeared to target drug sellers soon targeted users, and then their friends, families, and roommates. In some places, blame fanned out even further, to people with even more tenuous connections to alleged crimes.
In March 2019, Marissa Van Horn signed a lease for an apartment in Clarksburg with her 4-year-old daughter. Within a couple weeks the police sent her landlord a letter, citing unspecified illegal activity in the house and ordered it abated. Her landlord, Patricia Harryman, told The Appeal that she never received the letter, but in August the city fined her $250 when they learned Van Horn still lived there. That month, the city’s police chief visited Harryman, and they walked together around her neighborhood, stopping in front of Van Horn’s apartment. She remembered the police chief pointing up to the unit and then telling her the people inside were “no good.” (Police Chief Mark Kiddy remembered speaking with Harryman about the house but said he didn’t recall using those words about the tenants.) Soon after, Harryman filed for an eviction against Van Horn. In court filings Harryman wrote that the eviction was “ordered by the City of Clarksburg police chief.” The court rejected the application. Then, for months afterward, Van Horn said the chief of police showed up at her apartment and told her to leave. Recently, Harryman filed for eviction again. This time, she won. Van Horn suspected Harryman was pressured by police to evict her, though Harryman denied that.
Because of the extraordinary dangers of homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, eviction enforcements have slowed down in West Virginia. Martinsburg is being devastated by the novel coronavirus—at least four people have died and more than 21 have been infected at one VA hospital alone—but when it passes, eviction will remain a threat. Van Horn recently told The Appeal that she expects she’ll have to move into a homeless shelter. She is hopeful her mother will take her daughter in. The police still haven’t told Van Horn exactly why they labeled her house a drug house. Under the drug house ordinance, they don’t have to. In the city’s file on her case, someone wrote in neat handwriting, simply, “abated.”