Delegates at the 2017 AVMA meeting asked the AVMA to develop and disseminate information on marijuana as it pertains to four areas: (1) current legal status of cannabis as applied to veterinarians; (2) unified definitions of cannabis and its derivatives; (3) current research on the use of cannabis in animals; and (4) signs, symptoms and treatment of cannabis toxicity in animals.
Why do this? Veterinarians are reporting that owners are dosing pets with marijuana edibles to ease their anxiety, pain and other disorders. For humans, a large body of folklore and a smaller body of science support the concept of cannabis as effective medicine for an array of conditions — pain, neurological disorders, nausea, anorexia, anxiety and sleep disturbances. A report, The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research, published by the National Academy of Sciences in January 2017, is a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence to date. In a few areas, conclusive or substantial evidence of medical benefit was found — specifically, for the treatment of chronic pain in adults; as antiemetics to quell chemotherapy-induced nausea; and to address spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis. People considering cannabis for their own ills inevitably wonder whether animal companions with similar conditions could benefit, too. There, scientific documentation has been scarce to non-existent. Animals are also known to eat marijuana by accident. Dogs have a stronger reaction to tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, than humans — it can be fatal in large doses.
Cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, and like heroin and LSD, is placed in the most restrictive of five categories established by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Substances in this category, supposedly, have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use — a designation that is suppressing clinical research into the plant’s use as a potential source of new therapies or pharmaceuticals. While federal law prohibits using cannabis for medicinal or recreation purposes, at least 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some respect. With state and federal laws in conflict, anyone producing, selling or consuming marijuana is subject to arrest, asset forfeiture and conviction. The Justice Department, however, has pledged not to enforce federal criminal laws against those complying with state marijuana regulations.
However, despite its enforcement discretion, the federal government’s stance on marijuana presents obstacles for researchers. Scientists report that the approval process for researching marijuana is arduous, with policies of the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Agency and National Institute on Drug Abuse making it difficult for researchers to access federal funds and federally provided strains of cannabis.
To date, two studies in animals have attracted financial support from businesses that sell cannabis products. In the first study to attract substantial independent funding, Dr. Stephanie McGrath, a neurologist at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences has begun enrolling patients in a clinical trial to test the effects of the cannabis compound cannabidiol on 60 epileptic dogs who respond poorly to standard treatment. The American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (AKC-CHF) awarded the research $356,022. The award was based on early work that was funded by Applied Basic Science Corp., a Colorado company interested in producing and selling cannabis as medicine for dogs.
At Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, Dawn Boothe, the director of the clinical pharmacology laboratory also has a clinical trial of cannabidiol in epileptic patients, along with other cannabis-related research. Her work received $150,000 in analytical equipment and pilot-study funding, with a promise of more to come, from a nonprofit called Pet Conscious. The organization is associated with Canna-pet, a Washington company that sells cannabis-derived capsules, oils and biscuits for cats and dogs.
The AVMA delegates in 2017 raised the point of pet owners obtaining marijuana from their physicians and giving it to their pets. This is because that even in states which have legalized marijuana, none have stipulated its use in veterinary medicine.
California is ready to become the first state to recognize veterinary medicine in its marijuana statutes. AB 2215 would allow veterinarians to discuss the use of medical cannabis for their patients; authorise adults to use cannabis for medical purposes on animals they own; and require the state Veterinary Medical Board to adopt guidelines by January 1, 2020, for practitioners to follow when discussing cannabis with clients.
Endorsed by the California Veterinary Medical Association, the bill passed the Assembly with a large majority in May 2018, and received unanimous support from the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee on June 25. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider the bill in early August.
Bill sponsor Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, said he learned from veterinarians that they are not allowed to talk about cannabis use in their practices despite the potential medical benefits. He decided to try to remedy the situation.
“We want to get rid of the liability and let veterinarians do their job. They know more about pets and how to take care of them than anyone else,” Kalra said. “We don’t want people to guess [at usage and dosing]. That’s why allowing them to go to their vet and talk about it is critical; and ultimately, setting up guidelines and best practices.”
The California legislation inspired a lawmaker in New York to introduce a similar bill. However, that bill, A10104 did not make it out of committee before the legislative session ended in June. The sponsor, Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale, is up for re-election this fall. If re-elected, Paulin said she “absolutely, 100 percent” will reintroduce the bill next year. “I read about what was happening in California and I thought, ‘Wow,’” Paulin said. “I actually have an older pet, and I thought if this was something that could help alleviate pain, it would be a tremendous blessing to animal owners who love their pets.” Paulin has an 18-year-old, 10-pound poodle named Hercules. “I want all options for him,” she said.