Wash. landlords worried, confused about marijuana laws

VANCOUVER, Wash. - Frank Choate owns and operates a seven-unit apartment complex in Vancouver.

He immediately changed the smoking policy at the property last year when Washington voters approved recreational marijuana use.

"I originally had no smoking in the units. Now I posted it and told them no smoking of any kind in the property," said Choate.

Choate decided to ban all smoking, even cigarettes.

"I've taken the side that there's no smoking, period, on my property because of the new laws and the conflicts of state law and federal statutes," Choate said. "They're in conflict. I'm caught in the middle."

Nearly 100 landlords from Clark and Cowlitz counties attended a legal seminar on Saturday hosted by the two county governments to learn more about their rights when it comes to marijuana regulation. Many are worried about what state or federal agents could do to them over the new marijuana laws.

"As with any new law, it's the mystery of what does this mean? Suddenly, am I going to have a problem with this or not?" said legal expert John Campbell, who led the seminar.

The landlords want the state, and ultimately the federal government, to clear up the confusing laws.

"There's a lot of land and property being auctioned off for drug seizures," Choate said. "I don't want to be one of them. I'm too old to start over."

Medical marijuana is illegal under Federal law, so agents from the U.S. Department of Justice or Drug Enforcement Agency could theoretically seize a landlord's property if they're allowing a tenant to manufacture drugs. The seminar clarified that landlords like Choate are within their rights to simply ban all kinds of smoking, but a tenant could argue that they use medical marijuana to treat their disability. No judge has ever ruled on whether that's a valid argument.

State law requires landlords to make "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities.

"People are welcome to do what they want on their own properties, but if you're a renter, I believe you have to respect the property management's wishes," said Paul Van Baalen, who personally owns 83 rental units.

"I'm just stepping out of it and saying, 'No, I'm not going to play,'" said Choate. "I can't afford to."