After the results of the November election, more than half of U.S. states have now authorized medical marijuana. And eight of those states also allow recreational marijuana. So if pot helps some humans feel better, how about people's best friends?
Northwest veterinarians are being asked about treating pets with cannabis and that puts these vets in a difficult spot legally.
Dr. Cornelia Wagner runs the Hawthorne Veterinary Clinic in Portland. She said pet owners turn to hemp or medical marijuana for many of the same things humans take it for these days including cancer symptoms, pain, inflammation, seizures, nausea, anxiety, chronic skin allergies and loss of appetite.
"Five years ago when I started here hemp never came up, or cannabis hardly ever came up,” Wagner said. “Now we talk about it a lot."
‘We have to be careful about it'
Dr. Wagner tells dog owners that their animals are much more sensitive than humans to the effects of marijuana. It doesn't take much to cause a bad trip. Her clinic only stocks a few over-the-counter supplements derived from hemp, the variety of the cannabis plant that is not mind-altering.
"They are so low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that you can basically neglect it,” Wagner said. “We don't have to worry about this 'high' effect. The marijuana plant was specifically bred to have relatively high amounts of THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient -- what gets people high."
Hemp for pets is largely unrestricted right now. Marijuana is different.
"Legally, we have to be careful about it,” Wagner said. “Even though recreational marijuana use is legal in Oregon now, as veterinarians we are not allowed to prescribe it. So we have to be careful about giving recommendations."
She said cases of canine or feline cancer patients "where all other treatments have failed" are among the rare circumstances in which she might give advice on treatment with low doses of medical marijuana if a client asks.
Cautionary tales and consent forms
In those cases, the Portland vet clinic requires pet owners to sign a consent form stating that they understand the veterinarian cannot prescribe this controlled substance and that the pet owners have to obtain the substance themselves. When signing the consent form, the pet owners also agree to immediately stop the use of the marijuana treatment and consult the vet if negative side effects arise such as disorientation, drooling or inability to move.
In response to rising numbers of questions, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Examining Board this August mass-emailed what little guidance it could muster.
"Veterinarians may discuss veterinary use of cannabis with clients, and are advised to inform clients about published data on toxicity in animals, as well as lack of scientific data on benefits. Please be aware that a client’s written consent is needed for any unorthodox treatment," the memo stated.
The Washington State Department of Health staffs the state’s Veterinary Board of Governors. The Department’s home page for veterinarians simply states, “The law doesn't allow veterinarians to authorize medical marijuana for animals or humans, and doesn’t authorize the use of medical marijuana for pets.”
The Oregon and Washington State Veterinary Medical Associations have posted their own cautionary fact sheets online. Dr. Lisa Parshley, a WSVMA board member and owner of the Olympia Veterinary Cancer Center, said she is hesitant about cannabis products not just for legal reasons, but for the many scientific unknowns.
"I just feel like everybody is trying to jump the gun and get into the use of this without doing due process in the research labs, in the clinics, to try to get a really good product out there that is safe and actually works,” she said.
Parshley said researchers need to verify health claims, delineate risks and establish the proper dosing and delivery methods.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes similar points on its website where it cautions against usage of marijuana products for pets. The FDA says the safety and effectiveness of these products has not been established and needs further study.
Entrepreneurs fight back
The murky legal terrain got murkier this month when the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it considers all extracts from the cannabis plant to be controlled substances, including from hemp. The Hemp Industries Association said Monday that it is considering legal action to fight what it called an “incorrect” categorization.
Entrepreneurs in pot-friendly western states aren't waiting for the smoke to clear to meet consumer demand. Startups are selling a range of cannabis products for pets from capsules, oils, butters and tinctures to infused chew toys and dog treats.
The FDA singled out two Western Washington companies last year. They received warning letters for allegedly selling unapproved new animal drugs. But both Seattle-based Canna-Pet and Sultan, Washington-based Canna Companion continue to sell their lines of hemp-based capsules and concentrates.
An FDA spokesman wrote via email that the agency has open cases on both companies, but would not provide further details on the enforcement action.
Canna Companion co-founder Dr. Sarah Brandon said she learned a lot as a result of the FDA warning letter. "We changed our verbiage" in the company's marketing materials, informed the FDA and have been left alone since, she reported.
"Cannabis fills a niche that is badly needed in the community," Brandon continued. She said Canna Companion was striving for "legitimacy," but anticipated that uncertainty about the future federal regulation of marijuana and related products would continue in the near term.
"We are comfortable with the gray zone," Brandon said.
Canna-Pet did not respond to an interview request. In federal court filings last month pertaining to a trademark dispute, Canna-Pet reported it has sold more than 50,000 units of its products since 2013, "totaling more than one million individual capsules." The court filings also characterize the products as "dietary supplements for pets" and reject any contention that they are controlled substances.
Oregon entrepreneurs venturing into this field include GEMM Farms of Portland, maker of hemp-derived CBD dog treats and FlowerChild CBD (formerly Inyanga Farms) in southwest Oregon, which sells a medical marijuana-based CBD tincture for pets.
CBD is the acronym for cannabidiol, a compound extracted from cannabis thought to have a range of beneficial health properties.
The infused products for pet owners are not cheap. Medical marijuana dispensaries sell eyedropper-sized bottles of CBD oils for around $40, while 30-capsule containers of hemp-derived CBD supplements sell online starting from $30 on up.
‘I wished I had known enough to start sooner’
Michelle Batten of Portland owns Willy, a small, caramel-colored 16-year-old Lhasa Shih Tzu. She said Willy has a variety of age-related problems including arthritis and anxiety from vision loss. Conventional painkillers made him sluggish.
"So I started on the cannabinoid capsules,” Batten said, which in her case are derived from hemp.
"I was very open to it and so pleased with what I saw,” Batten said. “He's so much more content. He sleeps better. He's not in pain and he doesn't have the anxiety."
But does Willy seem “high?”
"No, not at all,” Batten said. “Just more calm."
Another Portland dog owner, Diane Benjamin, uses an eyedropper to put small amounts of hemp oil on the food of her 11-year-old greyhound-Rhodesian ridgeback named Pronto. She said the formulation provides relief from back trouble and arthritis.
The dog doesn’t appear to notice the culinary addition, but Benjamin said her acquaintances take notice.
“When I meet other dog owners and we start talking -- especially if they have old dogs -- and I mention that he’s on cannabinoid oil, they kind of raise their eyebrows like ‘Really?’ and maybe laugh a little bit,” Benjamin said.
She explains that she chooses the product for the medicinal properties.
“If it works and doesn’t have side effects, why not?” Benjamin said.
Terri Krick of rural Lewis County, Washington, contacted recreational marijuana shops for help getting a medicinal marijuana oil after her nine-year-old pit bull was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer this spring.
The dog started chemotherapy under the care of a vet, but Krick said in an interview that she searched online for what else she could do, which is how she landed on a marijuana-derived oil containing THC and CBD.
“I was going to do everything I could to give life to this dog,” Krick said. The initial dosage she administered was too high in THC though.
"His behavior changed. He was startled easily, almost on edge. Then I knew to cut back a little," Krick recalled. Using a strain with lower THC and higher CBD levels, the pit bull, Master P, started eating better and displayed more energy. But the cannabis supplements did not reverse the cancer as Krick had hoped they might. Master P passed away in October.
“I wished I had known enough to start sooner,” was her takeaway. “I was so scared to use it.”
Separate from purposeful dosing of dogs and cats with cannabis-infused medicines, dogs are being brought to vets after ingesting marijuana left in the open by humans. Curious, hungry dogs have wolfed down their owners' stashes, pot edibles or even joints dropped in parks.
Parshley said accidental exposure causes disorientation, incontinence, nausea and pets that are over-reactive to sound and lights. In serious cases, the animal may require hospitalization. The marijuana itself is rarely fatal, although in combination for example with a large amount of dark chocolate brownies, a dog may perish.