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A Bulldog who spent two years either lying down or throwing up plays like a puppy thanks to a daily dose of medical marijuana. A Boxer’s skin cancer begins to disappear following topical applications of cannabis oil. A 12-year-old Lab mix diagnosed with liver and lung cancer regains his appetite and becomes more himself after his owner gives him a cannabis tincture purchased from a licensed medical marijuana dispensary.
These stories offer hope to those of us who live with aging and/or infirm dogs, hope that we can improve the quality of their lives and perhaps even extend them.
Even more hopeful is the fact that these aren’t isolated incidents, but rather, three in an ever-increasing narrative of companion animals and cannabis- assisted healing. Yet, veterinarians played little to no official role in them. Why? Because Cannabis sativa (aka marijuana, grass, pot, hash, ganja, et al.)— a plant cultivated for literally thousands of years for its seeds, fibers and medicinal value—is a federally designated Schedule 1 controlled substance, a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
So, even if vets believe that medical marijuana could or would relieve a dog’s pain, nausea or seizures, their hands are tied, including in the 23 states and the District of Columbia where cannabis is legal for human medical use. Physicians in those states are exempt from prosecution, but veterinarians don’t have the same protection. Prescribing, or even recommending, cannabis for medicinal use exposes them to the loss of their license to practice.
It’s a difficult place for a vet to find him- or herself: to have a remedy that has been shown to have very real benefits but not be able to use it, or even mention it, without career-ending consequences. Nonetheless, some have put their livelihoods at risk by challenging that prohibition, usually for the same reasons given by the late Doug Kramer, DVM, of Chatsworth, Calif., in a 2013 interview with Julia Szabo: compassion, and to prevent owners from accidentally overdosing their animals in well-intentioned efforts to relieve their pain.
And that’s part of the veterinary quandary. Medical marijuana has been described as the new “dot.com” boom, fueled by a growing body of research that seems to be validating cannabis’s beneficial effects for people. When people are helped by a particular treatment, they tend to want to share it with their ailing companion animals.
With medical marijuana, they’re doing this in increasing numbers, acting on the belief that if it works for them, it can also work for their dog or cat … or horse, for that matter. In doing so, they’re not necessarily curing incurable conditions but rather, are helping their animals enjoy daily life with better appetite and less pain until age or disease ultimately catches up.
The plant world has given us some of our oldest and most trusted—and, it’s true, sometimes abused—remedies. Pain relievers like codeine and morphine (poppy); colchicine, an antitumor drug (autumn crocus); the cardiac drug digitalin (purple foxglove); antimalarial quinine (quinine tree); and salicin, the chemical precursor to aspirin (white willow). The list is long.
When that plant has a cultural backstory like marijuana’s, however— “demon weed” in the ’50s, counterculture toke of choice in the ’60s, DEA Schedule 1 drug in the ’70s and onward —empirical evidence is harder to come by. Many barriers are placed in the path of those who want to find answers to questions about marijuana’s potential healing powers. Consequently, there’s a scarcity of rigorous research on the topic, particularly for veterinary application.
Determining whether or not to bring medical marijuana into general and legal use nationwide for humans and animals alike—and how to do it in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes its risks—requires this research. Stories, no matter how compelling and promising, are not science, and anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence in the scientific sense. Rather, hypotheses need to be tested in randomized, placebo-controlled studies, the results analyzed and conclusions drawn. The results are then retested and found to be replicable (or not) by others.