Cannabis (including both marijuana and hemp) has been used therapeutically for generations to treat many ailments ranging from pain to seizure disorders. Pet owners are increasingly interested in the medical benefits of these substances for their companion animals; however, there are legal implications for not only the pet owner, but also the veterinarian.
In this two-part VS Insights series, we discuss the potential legal implications for veterinarians to consider regarding cannabis and hemp products. This article focuses on cannabis products, while part two focuses on hemp and hemp-derived products.
Legality of Cannabis
The term "cannabis," also known as marijuana, is typically used to refer to the plant Cannabis sativa L. with a THC concentration greater than 0.3%. When the plant has less than 0.3% THC, it is "hemp." While cannabis is legal for medical and adult use in many states, it remains a schedule I controlled substance at the federal level and in some states. In contrast, hemp is federally legal as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill.
In many states that legalized cannabis for medical and/or adult use, cannabis remains on the state's controlled substances list. Legal protections only extend to those using, recommending, or possessing marijuana in accordance with medical or adult-use cannabis laws and regulations. State medical cannabis programs do not contemplate animals as patients.
It is Illegal for Veterinarians to Prescribe Cannabis
Many veterinarians have a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) registration to prescribe controlled medications to animal patients. To maintain a DEA registration, veterinarians must comply with state and federal laws, including state and federal controlled substances acts.
It is a violation of the federal controlled substances act for a medical professional, including a veterinarian, to prescribe a schedule I controlled substance (outside of very limited circumstances in research).
Consequently, prescribing cannabis, even in a state where cannabis is legal, could put a veterinarian's DEA registration and/or license to practice at risk and may even result in criminal liability. Note: medical doctors in states with medical cannabis "recommend" cannabis to their human patients but do not prescribe it.
Veterinarians May Discuss Cannabis with Pet Owners
While prescribing cannabis to veterinary patients should not be done in any state, veterinarians may be permitted to discuss cannabis with pet owners or recommend cannabis to companion animals, depending on state law. In many states with legal cannabis programs, such as Colorado, the state veterinary medical association provides guidance for discussing cannabis with companion animal owners. The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Position Statement on Marijuana and Marijuana-derived Products in Companion Animals states that "veterinarians have an obligation to provide companion animal owners with a complete education regarding the potential risks and benefits of marijuana products in animals" but confirms that it is illegal for veterinarians to prescribe cannabis to animal patients.
In 2022, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 1885, which prohibits the California Veterinary Medical Board from disciplining veterinarians who recommend cannabis to animal patients, except under limited circumstances. Under the bill, veterinarians may not discuss or recommend cannabis use with a client if the veterinarian is employed by, or has an agreement with, a licensed cannabis business. Veterinarians are also prohibited from distributing any cannabis advertising.
Laws regarding cannabis and the regulation of the veterinary profession vary wildly between states, and there could be real consequences for veterinarians who run afoul of these laws, including a loss of their DEA registration. Before discussing cannabis with clients, veterinarians should ensure they are aware of all relevant information in the state where they practice.
Cannabis Considerations for Pet Owners
Notwithstanding the above prohibition on prescribing, pet owners should be honest and always discuss cannabis with their veterinarian before giving cannabis or cannabis products to their pets. Pets react differently to cannabis than humans. In addition, if pets unintentionally consume cannabis, a veterinarian should be contacted immediately, as treatment may be required.