By Janice Brown
On August 1 of this year, Governor Pat Quinn signed House Bill 1—the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act. This Bill, while carrying the nation’s strongest restrictions, legalizes the use of medical marijuana for people with debilitating medical conditions. Despite the political arguments, evidence clearly reveals marijuana is an effective treatment for pain. And while we know marijuana can help manage pain for humans, people are now slowly coming forward to discuss the effects it has on pets.
Medical research can take a decade or more to ensure marijuana is effective and free of side effects for animals. In the meantime, many people are choosing to use it for themselves and their pets, saying the tangible benefits of pain management far outweigh the risks.
The June 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) took an in-depth look at several stories about pet parents who use the drug as medicine. It tells the story of Miles, an elderly Black Lab, who stopped vomiting and regained his appetite after receiving a glycerin tincture of marijuana—sold at licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles.
It also tells the story of a 77-year-old California man who found relief with prescription pot after struggling with chronic back pain. Borzo, his 24-year-old cat, was having mobility issues of his own. After ingesting just a bit of marijuana, Borzo appeared pain-free and was moving much better, the man told JAVMA.
And while the jury is still out on the long-term effects of administering cannabis to pets, one Los Angeles-based veterinarian, Dr. Douglas Kramer, is speaking out in favor of the drug. “I grew tired of euthanizing pets when I wasn’t doing everything I could to make their lives better,” he told The Associated Press in June. “I felt like I was letting them down.”
In the JAVMA article, Kramer recounts the experience with his Siberian Husky, Nikita, who had cancer and stopped eating: “I’d exhausted every available pharmaceutical pain option, even steroids. At that point, it was a quality-of-life issue, and I felt like I’d try anything to ease her suffering.” Kramer says the small dose of cannabis in her food improved the dog’s quality of life and gave him an extra six weeks with her.
Many people are caught up in the politics and stigma attached to marijuana. However, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2010, drug overdoses were responsible for 38,329 deaths. Sixty percent of those were related to prescription drugs. In the same year, more than 25,000 people died of alcohol-induced causes, including accidental poisoning and disease from dependent use. Not a single person has reportedly died from a marijuana overdose.
Experts say that marijuana has a “wide margin of safety,” and it is extremely rare for pets to ingest enough marijuana to cause death, although they may still need medical treatment to recover from poisoning. Over the past five years, no marijuana-related deaths in pets have been reported to the Pet Poison Helpline. Veterinarians urge people with marijuana in the home to keep the substance out of their pets’ reach. They also recommend not administering cannabis to an animal without consulting a medical professional. If your pet accidentally ingests marijuana, be sure to seek advice from your veterinarian as soon as you can.
While using marijuana for pain control is not for everyone, it is getting harder to deny its benefits. Darlene Arden, author and certified animal behavior consultant, sees the big picture. “It seems counterproductive not to give a pet something that will ease their pain or remove it completely,” she says. “Many medicines are plant-based, and I see marijuana as just one more. Understand that I have never smoked. I have no interest in recreational use, but I think it’s unconscionable to withhold an effective medication because a group of politicians think the wrong people will use it. What about the right people and pets who need the help? Is it humane to let them suffer? I think not.”