Let's talk about pot

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Potted marijuana plantCalifornia has become the first state in the nation to allow veterinarians to legally talk with clients about cannabis as a treatment option for pets.

The new law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 27, prevents the California Veterinary Medical Board from disciplining a veterinarian or denying, revoking, or suspending the license of a veterinarian solely for discussing the use of cannabis in an animal for medicinal purposes.

The veterinary board must develop guidelines for such discussions on or before January 2020 and post them on its website.

The California law authorizes veterinarians only to discuss medical marijuana with clients; prohibitions against recommending, prescribing, dispensing, or administering cannabis or cannabis products to an animal patient remain in place.

Additionally, the law prohibits a veterinarian from having a financial relationship with a licensed cannabis business in California, with violators facing fines and loss of their veterinary license.

States where medical marijuana is legal—29 so far, plus the District of Columbia—shield physicians from criminal and disciplinary actions for discussing marijuana with patients or recommending or prescribing marijuana to patients. With the recent exception of California, no similar allowances are made for veterinarians.

Introduced in February, Assembly Bill 2215 enjoyed broad support within the state's veterinary community and was endorsed by both the California and Southern California VMAs. "With the signing of the bill, at least now veterinarians can play the role of advisers and educators to pet owners seeking further information, rather than having to play a passive role and watching the multitude of nonprofessional resources be the educators and advisers to the pet owners," said Dr. Laura Weatherford, president of the SCVMA.

Dr. Gary Richter owns Holistic Veterinary Care in Oakland, California, and was a chief advocate for AB 2215. He says the new law is a "big step in the right direction" for veterinarians and pet owners in California. "Until now, pet owners were being forced to get medical information from untrained people: pet store employees, cannabis dispensary workers, and the Internet," Dr. Richter said.

Nevertheless, Dr. Richter believes changes made to the bill after its introduction create problems on a number of fronts. For instance, stripped from the original bill was language directing the state to establish guidelines ensuring the safety of cannabis products specifically marketed for pets. He also says the prohibition on conflicts of interest with a cannabis business will exclude veterinarians from product development.

"The only people in the state who are going to be forbidden to design cannabis medicines for pets will be the veterinarians," Dr. Richter said. "This exclusion is not only illogical, it will slow the pace of research in the private sector and slow the development of new cannabis medicines."

Learn about cannabis from AVMA experts

An AVMA webinar on cannabis provides insight on the potential benefits, risks, and legal regulations surrounding cannabis-derived products. The webinar is available on demand to AVMA members, for free, and is an opportunity to earn one hour of continuing education credit.

Related JAVMA content:

Cannabis research for veterinary patients advancing, cautiously (Aug 1, 2018)