The Legal Status of Cannabis for Animals

There's huge interest in the use of CBD and cannabis therapeutics for animals. But veterinary guidance, and research, is lacking. Vets in California are doing something about it.
By Gary Richter, MS, DVM On March 08, 2019
Cannabis and CBD have helped millions of animals across the US
Cannabis and CBD have helped millions of animals across the US

In recent years, the use of cannabis in veterinary medicine has gone from obscure concept to a mainstream issue.  This explosion of interest in the use of cannabis and CBD for animals has led to the development of a multi-million dollar industry creating cannabis-based products for pets.  As so often happens, however, public demand is a few steps ahead of the medical and legal establishment.

As with humans, cannabis for pets can be broadly divided into two categories: hemp-based CBD and true medical cannabis (marijuana) products.  Both categories face their own individual legal challenges while the veterinary profession has its own internal battle on how to address the growing interest and body of research to support the use of medical cannabis for animals.  As a means of clearing the air, following is a summary of the challenges faced by pet owners and veterinarians regarding the use of cannabis for animals.

Hemp is defined as cannabis that naturally produces less than 0.3% THC.  For years, hemp companies have been producing CBD rich extracts and marketing them for animals and humans.  Although the federal legality of these products has been a matter of debate, the 2018 Farm Bill signed into law last year officially took hemp and CBD from hemp off of the federal controlled substances list.  Immediately in response, the FDA announced that CBD is considered a “drug” and is thus subject to pharmaceutical regulations.  In practicality, this means hemp companies have to be very careful in the way they label and advertise their products in order to prevent the FDA from restricting their sales.  This is why you often see terms like “phytocannabinoids rich extract” and “hemp extract” on products rather than the term “CBD.”

While hemp-based CBD products are now considered slightly more legal, veterinary use and/or recommendations of these products is a different story. As of February 2019, the Veterinary Medical Board in California still has no official policy on hemp products. They do however, continue to tell veterinarians they are barred from discussing, recommending, or selling hemp products.

Medical Cannabis in California

Over the past several years, there has been a surge in interest in medical cannabis and CBD for pets.  The California Veterinary Medical Board released a statement in early 2017 reminding veterinarians that state law does not allow for veterinary recommendation of cannabis and if vets recommend or discuss the use of cannabis for their patients, they put their medical licenses at risk.  In response, veterinarians and others concerned for patient safety promoted a change in state law.  AB 2215 was passed and signed into law in late 2018, allowing veterinarians to “discuss” the use of cannabis with pet owners.

Presently, the Veterinary Medical Board is debating the definition of “discuss” and it is fair to say there is not a consensus.  While some board members see the need for veterinarians to be directly involved with keeping their patients safe through providing appropriate medical guidance, others are openly opposed to the use of cannabis in veterinary medicine. 

While the Veterinary Medical Board debates the definition of the word “discuss” (they have until January 1, 2020 to come to a consensus), the effort to allow veterinary recommendation of cannabis continues to move forward.  SB 627 authored by Senator Cathleen Galgiani was introduced to the legislature in February 2019 and if passed, will “unleash” veterinarians in California and help safeguard pets in need of medicine.

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For the time being, the use of cannabis for animals is in a state of flux.  As a pet owner, you can buy CBD containing products for pets over the counter and, if your state has a cannabis law, you can purchase human or animal labeled products containing THC and give them to your pet.  Unfortunately, your veterinarian may be reticent to talk with you about it or give you guidance out of concern for his/her medical license.  With some luck and persistence however, California will soon become the first state in the USA to allow veterinarians to “recommend” medical cannabis for animals.  And as the saying goes, “As goes California, so goes the nation.”


Gary Richter, a Project CBD contributing writer, is an Oakland-based veterinarian. His forthcoming articles for projectcbd.org will contain practical information on using cannabis to treat medical conditions in pets.