Latest veterinary cannabis bill in California on hold until 2020

Status quo leaves practitioners able to 'discuss' but not 'recommend'

August 29, 2019 (published)
By Edie Lau

A bill that would have made California the first state in the country to authorize veterinarians to recommend cannabis as medicine for their animal patients won't make it through the Legislature this year.

The proposed law will be held over to 2020 while Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, the bill author, revises the language to address a variety of requested amendments, according to Galgiani's legislative director, Mike Sharif. The first half of the two-year legislative session ends Sept. 13; lawmakers reconvene on Jan. 6.

SB 627 passed the Senate on May 23. The Assembly Committee on Business and Professions approved the bill with requested revisions on July 9. It's now at the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The bill would have had to pass Appropriations this week in order to reach the Assembly floor before lawmakers go on recess. Sharif said Galgiani opted not to try to make the deadline in order to allow time to work on amendments requested from the Committee on Business and Professions as well as the California Veterinary Medical Board, which oversees licensees.

Laws in 28 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam, allow for comprehensive medical marijuana programs for human patients, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures count. But California is the only state thus far to formally address veterinary medical use.

The lack of legal authority in most states has not stopped entrepreneurs from developing and marketing products for use in pets, nor pet owners from trying cannabis products on their animals to relieve pain, anxiety or other maladies. It's created an awkward situation for veterinarians, whose job is to guide pets' medical care but who fear risking their licenses by being involved with an unsanctioned therapy.

Last September, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 2215, which protects veterinary license-holders in California from disciplinary action solely for discussing the therapeutic use of cannabis in animals. (Cannabis is the plant from which marijuana comes.)

While the law prevents state regulators from penalizing a veterinarian for talking with clients about using cannabis, it does not allow veterinarians to dispense or administer cannabis or cannabis products to patients.

"We wanted to take it a step further and actually allow veterinarians to recommend cannabis," Sharif said, explaining the motivation behind the pending bill.

Granting veterinarians the flexibility to recommend cannabis as medicine would make discussion more meaningful, he said: "We wanted to free up veterinarians, because it's very hard to discuss without recommending, and we felt like veterinarians would err on the side of caution and not even discuss it because they don't want to be seen as recommending."

While the crux of the bill is intact, the legislative process has altered its shape in a way that potentially dilutes veterinarians' involvement. "The bill's been amended a bunch of times through committee," Sharif said. "Some amendments were our idea and some were proposed by the committee. We decided to accept those [proposed] amendments to ensure its passage through the committee.”

Among those is a request from the Assembly Business and Professions Committee to allow the public to buy pet products from retailers who sell cannabis for recreational use. California is one of 11 states and the District of Columbia that allow recreational use of marijuana by adults.

Sharif said advocates of the original bill language had hoped to restrict sales to medical-marijuana dispensaries. "We wanted it to be more of an official process where it was more like a prescription," he said, "but amendments in B&P kind of allow pet owners to go about it through the status quo: They procure it from their friends ... they're doing research on the internet, they take advice from the bud tenders. So they can still do that [under the bill]."

The change is disappointing to veterinarians such as Dr. Gary Richter, who practices in Oakland. "It's bad policy, it's bad medicine. It's just bad," Richter said. "We're already cut out of the loop. We're trying to get into the loop. This would basically keep us out of the loop."

Richter and other advocates of veterinarians being involved in the use of cannabis in animals say patients are better served with oversight by medical professionals.

Dr. Richard Sullivan, a member of the state veterinary board's Multidisciplinary Advisory Committee, said during a discussion about the bill at a meeting on July 16: "We do need to be able to recommend, so we can ... develop a trust with our clients that we need to follow up with patients, [to] measure pain improvement, range of motion [and other] metrics to see if it's working, and if it's not, [then] get them off of it."

Should SB 627 pass, the veterinary board would be tasked with developing guidelines for veterinarians to follow when recommending cannabis.

The board has offered its support of SB 627 if the bill is amended to: provide for funding for cannabis research in animals; eliminate a requirement that the board regularly report to the Legislature about its progress on developing guidelines; and remove a requirement that the board consult with the state Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) when developing the guidelines. The veterinary board argues that while the CMCR has expertise in the efficacy of cannabis in humans, it does not have comparable expertise in animals.

The veterinary board has been engaged this year in writing guidelines for veterinarians when discussing cannabis. By law, the guidelines are due Jan. 1.

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