Interview: Exploring the Future of Marin County Cannabis

The Pacific Sun interviews… Community Development Agency director Tom Lai

Tom Lai, who has spent his entire 29-year professional career with the County of Marin, officially became the director of the Community Development Agency (CDA) last week. Lai has served as acting director since longtime director Brian Crawford’s retirement in December 2020. Among other prior achievements, Lai and his teams developed Ordinance 3639, the County’s first ordinance regulating storefront dispensaries for medicinal cannabis in 2015.

During that process, staff worked closely with a subcommittee of the Board of Supervisors to establish appropriate local controls, including buffer zones from schools, permitting processes—through a competitive, business-license type permit—and specific license number limits including the provision that there be no more than four licenses issued for the unincorporated area. To date, the county has issued only three licenses, and only one business has started operations.

“We provided maps on our website showing areas that are ‘eligible’ for siting dispensaries, then hosted meetings in those communities to solicit feedback,” Lai said, reflecting on the ordinance in a recent email interview. “While there were supporters, these community meetings elicited strong, vocal opposition. I’d say only community meetings discussing housing have generated more hostility and opposition.”

Which begs the question, why are Marin County’s cannabis programs clustered under the Community Development Agency rather than, say, public health?

“This is a good question,” Lai said. “There are  different governmental structures used by counties/cities to regulate cannabis businesses, ranging from public health to law enforcement to community development [Planning]. I think because so much of the issues raised are related to land-use conflicts, the Board decided that CDA’s Planning Division would best take the lead in launching this program because of our knowledge and expertise in regulating land uses and construction.”

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